Congress turned aside a last-ditch lobbying effort by the White House and Saudi Arabia Wednesday and overrode President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow the kingdom to be sued for involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The emotions of the bill, powered by the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks, overcame the administration’s concerns that the measure could set a precedent that could put U.S. personnel overseas at risk.
The House’s 348-77 vote on Wednesday followed an overwhelming 97-1 margin in the Senate, both of which easily cleared the two-thirds threshold needed to override the veto. It’s the first time Congress has overridden one of Obama’s vetoes, and the measure now becomes law without his signature.
Obama called the override “a mistake” at a town hall event at Fort Lee, Virginia hosted by CNN. Other countries, he said, may respond by allowing their citizens to sue the U.S. for actions by American soldiers, diplomats or corporate executives, who are usually protected from litigation by the concept of sovereign immunity.
“It’s a dangerous precedent,” he said. “It’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard. I wish Congress here had done what’s hard.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest earlier in the day said the Senate vote was “the single most embarrassing thing the Senate has done” in years.
The result could prompt Saudi Arabia to delay its first international bond out of concern that some investors may balk over the issue, two people with knowledge of the matter said. Saudi Arabian officials haven’t made a decision yet on the timing of the bond or the amount they plan to raise, Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf said in a statement to Bloomberg.
The bipartisan Sept. 11 lawsuit bill was sponsored by the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, and the expected future Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and it has the backing of both presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“What I have found in situations like this is the White House and the executive branch is far more interested in diplomatic considerations,” Schumer told reporters after the vote. “We’re more interested in families and in justice.”
“I think our administration was just dead wrong on this issue,” he added.
Some House lawmakers had expressed reservations about the bill, including Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, who had urged his colleagues in a letter not to override the president’s veto.
“We ought to be careful about what we do because it has long-term consequences,” he said in an interview.
Earnest told reporters Tuesday that Obama’s concern isn’t about how a particular judge might rule on a case involving Saudi Arabia, but how the precedent of removing sovereign immunity could impact U.S. activities around the world.
Obama wrote a letter Tuesday to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid amplifying his case against the bill.
The measure “sweeps much more broadly than 9/11 or Saudi Arabia, and its far-reaching implications would threaten to undermine important principles that protect the United States, including our U.S. armed forces and other officials overseas, without making us any safer,” the president wrote. “That’s why I vetoed the bill and why I urge you to vote to sustain the veto.”
John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make a last-minute appeal to lawmakers to sustain the veto, warning the bill could have “grave implications” by undermining the concept of sovereign immunity.
“No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States — and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA,” he said in a statement.
Brennan also told a Washington audience Wednesday that Saudi Arabia provides significant amounts of information to help disrupt terrorist attacks and that it would be an “absolute shame” if the measure’s enactment affects the government’s counterterrorism relationship with the U.S.
Politically, however, it was very hard for lawmakers to make an abstract argument about possible future lawsuits when Sept. 11 victims’ families are asking for their day in court, particularly with the November election around the corner.
“The president understands the passion that is on both sides of this issue,” Earnest said, but added that he believes it would endanger troops, diplomats and intelligence personnel around the world.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also sent Thornberry a letter Monday warning of the impact if foreign countries in turn decided to limit sovereign immunity for the U.S. He said that could potentially expose Americans to lawsuits and “an intrusive discovery process” even if the U.S. is ultimately found not to be responsible for a particular event. Carter also noted there is a risk to U.S. assets, given the large amount of U.S. government property overseas, including military bases.
Several lawmakers said they hoped the legislation could be narrowed in the future. A bipartisan group of 28 senators released a letter after their chamber voted Wednesday saying that they would work to “mitigate” any unintended consequences of the law.
Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman who has raised concerns about the bill, told reporters that he and other lawmakers are exploring the possibility of narrowing the bill’s application to just lawsuits arising from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Once the bill becomes law, “we may have a better opportunity to soften this,” Corker told reporters. “You are going to see suits filed very quickly” against Saudi Arabia, and some other countries are likely to move quickly to expose the U.S. to lawsuits in their courts as well, Corker said. “We may be in a much better situation” to change the measure “after it goes into effect, after people see the impact of this legislation” he said.
That could happen in a lame-duck session or later.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters he is also trying to pursue language “that would allow the 9/11 families to move forward with their claims but also be some preventive medicine.” Lawmakers “want to help the 9/11 families but there could be some real consequences to us as a nation if we don’t think this thing through. We don’t want to lose Saudi Arabia as an ally,” Graham said. Lawmakers are “thinking about making this more of a win-win,” he said.
Corker said last week the bill only passed the Senate on a voice vote the first time around because members didn’t think the House would take it up. But the House sent it to the president’s desk.