Brushing aside White House warnings about national security, Congress moved decisively Wednesday to override a presidential veto — for the first time in the Obama administration — of a bill that will allow 9/11 families to sue the Saudi Arabian government for damages.
Supporters say it will give victims of terrorism their day in court. But opponents, including the White House, warn it will complicate U.S. relationships abroad, impede national security investigations and open the floodgates to similar lawsuits by foreigners against the U.S. government.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, lamented Wednesday that a measure with such potentially far-reaching consequences to U.S. foreign policy had not even been subject to a hearing in Congress before it sailed through both chambers.
Yet just moments later, he joined his Senate colleagues, who voted 97 to 1 to override Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The House swiftly followed with a vote of 348 to 77.
The legislation will amend existing law to allow U.S. courts to hear terrorism cases against foreign states, narrowing the scope of immunity now granted to sovereign foreign actors.
Families of the 9/11 attacks had been stymied for years in their legal attempts to seek compensation from the Saudi Arabian government. They note that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The United States and the 9/11 Commission investigated possible links between Saudi Arabia and the Sept. 11 attacks and found no conclusive evidence.
“We are overwhelmingly grateful that Congress did not let us down," said Terry Strada, national chair of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism. "We rejoice in this triumph and look forward to our day in court and a time when we may finally get more answers regarding who was truly behind the attacks."
The override vote was the first time Congress has successfully challenged the president on a piece of legislation, despite Obama’s 12 other vetoes, including 10 when Republicans were the majority of both houses.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest blasted the action as "embarrassing" to Congress and said lawmakers “are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today.”
A cadre of blue-chip lobby shops had been paid top dollar by the Saudi government to try to derail the action. Saudis warned that passage of the measure would force them to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. debt or other assets to protect themselves against possible future judgments.
But the opposition had little chance against the compelling stories of the 9/11 victims’ families and friends who have pressured Congress for almost a decade to pass the legislation.
“This rare moment of bipartisanship is a testament to the strength of the 9/11 families,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the bill’s lead authors. “Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case.”
Obama, in a letter to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he believed that the law would be “detrimental to U.S. national interests’’ because it would likely lead other nations to reconsider their own immunity laws protecting U.S. soldiers and diplomats. The president also said such lawsuits could subject the United States to demands for "sensitive" intelligence as part of the legal discovery process and lead to “sizable money damages."
At a CNN town hall Wednesday night, Obama said the law would expose U.S. citizens to “private lawsuits in courts where we don’t even known exactly whether they are on the up and up in some cases. … Sometimes you have to do what's hard. And. frankly, I wished Congress here had done what's hard."
Reid was the lone Senate vote against the override. Two other senators did not vote because they were on the presidential campaign trail in support of Hillary Clinton — Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The legislation had bounced around Washington for years, but it was never expected to advance. Schumer, the brash New Yorker who is poised to become the Senate Democratic leader next year, succeeded in passing it through the Senate in spring on a voice vote, without a formal roll call.
The House seized the opportunity to corner Obama, and just before the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, approved the measure on a swift voice vote.
In the weeks since, the White House and other opponents — and even some reluctant lawmakers who acknowledged they had concerns about the bill or did not fully understand it — scrambled to play catch-up.
Top lobbying firms employing former congressional leaders, including Trent Lott, John Breaux and others, were hired by the Saudi government, some on $100,000-a-month retainers, to fight the override vote.
Several key lawmakers said in recent days they were having second thoughts about supporting the bill and some expressed hope that subsequent legislation could be passed to address the administration’s concerns or narrow the law.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would closely monitor how other nations respond to the new law and be ready to respond with additional legislation "to mitigate any risks" to U.S. diplomats, troops and other personnel.
Some Republicans criticized the White House for failing to anticipate the legislation would gain the kind of momentum it did, and make a more fulsome case to lawmakers against it. White House officials strenuously objected to the characterization.
The override vote was not only a public rebuke of the president, but a reminder of his often tenuous relationship with Congress.
Obama has been criticized for having little experience with Capitol Hill, and even less engagement. He outsourced too much of his legislating to staff, critics said, without investing in the personal relationships needed to bargain with lawmakers.
When Republicans became the majority in both houses in 2015, they envisioned turning Obama into a vetoer-in-chief, eager to force the president into the uncomfortable position of rejecting bill after bill from the new Congress.
The strategy was seen by former House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a way to fire up their partisan GOP base and show the two parties’ different approaches to legislating.
But that never really happened. Faced with their own party infighting, the Republican House and Senate often struggled to find common ground and muster their own votes to send bills to the White House.
When they did, Obama easily swatted the bills back with a veto message. On the few occasions when Republicans mounted an override attempt, Democrats sustained the vetoes.
The closest Republicans came to a victory was on a bill to expedite construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that many Democrats also supported. But the override fell a few votes short of the 67 needed.
Obama at times has appeared to lament that he didn’t always have true sparring partners in the gridlocked Congress.
“I don’t generally even have to veto anything because they can’t get organized enough even to present the cockamamie legislation that they’re interested in passing,” Obama said at a recent New York fundraiser.
Obama’s thin veto record is similar to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and a fraction of the 37 that President Clinton dashed off with his veto pen. It’s nowhere near the 250 under President Truman or 635 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Overrides also are rare. During the last administration, Congress was able to override Bush four times, all during his final years when Democrats had control of both chambers. Clinton was overridden twice. Truman and President Ford experienced the most overrides in the modern era, 12.
3:20 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.
12:10 p.m.: This article was updated after the House vote.
10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with details of the Senate vote.
9:35 a.m.: This article was updated after the Senate vote.
This article was originally published at 7:15 a.m.