A day after veto override, Congress has second thoughts and may fix Sept. 11 bill

Less than a day after Congress overrode President Obama’s veto of a bill that would let 9/11 victims’ families sue Saudi Arabia, top GOP leaders said they might need to fix the new law to protect U.S. national security interests.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both acknowledged Thursday that the bill, which narrows a foreign nation’s immunity from legal challenge, could backfire by exposing the United States to retaliatory lawsuits by foreign victims of terrorism.

“There may be some work to be done,” Ryan told reporters.

The White House had warned as much in an unsuccessful last-minute barrage by the defense secretary, CIA director and other top national security officials to try to stop the override. All wrote weighty letters to Congress voicing their concerns about the potential harm, leading some lawmakers to publicly express reservations ahead of this week’s vote. But most went ahead and supported the override anyway.

Republicans in Congress were eager to deliver a rebuke to the White House with their first-ever win in a veto showdown against President Obama. The 9/11 bill also offered a popular piece of bipartisan legislation, despite heavy lobbying from the Saudi Arabian government, a key U.S. ally.

Ryan said lawmakers were focused on giving 9/11 families “their day in court.” However, now the speaker is worried that other countries will retaliate — as the White House had warned — by adjusting their own laws to target the United States and its military personnel with lawsuits.

“I would like to think there may be some work to be done to protect our service members overseas from any kind of — any kind of legal ensnarements that could occur,” Ryan said. “I'd like to think that there's a way we could fix so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims.”

McConnell also suggested changes to the law are “worth further discussing.”

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“I told the president the other day this was an issue we should have talked about much earlier,” McConnell said.

“By the time everybody seemed to focus on some of the potential consequences of it, members had already taken a position,” McConnell said. “Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were, but nobody really had focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships. I think it was just a ball dropped.”

The White House spared no criticism of Congress for failing to heed the warnings and do its homework before voting.

"What's true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress: Ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Earnest noted that Obama spoke about the legislation as far back as April, and he disputed claims from some Republicans, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, that the White House refused to engage in negotiations over the legislation in the last week. He noted that the legislation was modified this spring in response to White House concerns, but said the changes did not go far enough.

“What it mostly is, is an abject embarrassment,” Earnest said. “Because I think the American people, and certainly our men and women in uniform … expect better service and leadership from the men and women that they elected to represent them."

The victims’ families had celebrated the long-fought outcome of Wednesday’s vote, having pressed for a decade for the ability to bring their case to court.

While 15 of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has not been expressly implicated in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and the downing of Flight 93 over Pennsylvania.

Few expected the legislation to pass. It was hastily approved by only voice votes — one just before the 15th anniversary of the 2001 attacks.

Obama swiftly vetoed it, setting up the showdown.

Saudi Arabia also unleashed top-flight lobbyists to warn lawmakers off the bill, but the kingdom’s influence appeared to be waning and few lawmakers wanted to go against the 9/11 families in an election year.

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What happens next remains uncertain. The bill’s main author, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, said Thursday he was willing to consider changes, but nothing that would impede the families from proceeding with the legal action.

A bipartisan group of 28 senators had written to him ahead of the vote with their concerns.

“I will look at anything,” Schumer said. “But it has to be something that doesn't weaken the bill and limit the right of these families to get their day in court and justice.”

One suggestion has been to limit the scope of the law more narrowly, to just those victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But Schumer dismissed that idea because he said it would offer no recourse against future state sponsors of terrorism.

Congress has recessed now for an extensive period of campaigning ahead of the November election.

When lawmakers return Nov. 15, they will have a few weeks, excluding the Thanksgiving holiday, to legislate a long to-do list during the lame-duck session before the end of the year.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @LisaMascaro

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