To Obama, veto over­ride was un­kind­est cut from Congress

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN DINAN

The Novem­ber elec­tion re­sult was painful, but Pres­i­dent Obama’s worst mo­ment of the year may have come weeks ear­lier when Congress voted to over­ride his veto of a bill open­ing the court­room doors to vic­tims of the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks who wanted to prove that the gov­ern­ment of Saudi Ara­bia was im­pli­cated.

Sen­a­tors voted 97-1 to over­ride Mr. Obama’s veto, and the House held a sim­i­larly lop­sided vote. That sparked an over-the-top re­ac­tion from the White House, which called it the “sin­gle most em­bar­rass­ing thing” Congress had done in 30 years.

That fever­ish re­ac­tion spawned a re­think by some mem­bers of Congress, who said they may have acted too hastily and sug­gested it may be worth re­vis­it­ing the law to make sure it didn’t come back to bite Amer­i­can troops, who might face le­gal ex­po­sure of their own. Among these law­mak­ers were Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell, Ken­tucky Repub­li­can, who said there may be un­in­tended con­se­quences, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can, who said a fix might be in or­der.

Three months later, those sec­ond thoughts have dis­si­pated,

Mr. Obama’s worries have been shunted aside and the Jus­tice Against Spon­sors of Ter­ror­ism Act looks like it’s here to stay.

The law’s en­act­ment marked a de­feat for Mr. Obama, who for the first time in his two terms in the White House failed to pre­vail on a veto. Congress sus­tained his pre­vi­ous 11 ve­toes, many of them with­out com­ing up for a full vote even when Repub­li­cans con­trolled both cham­bers on Capi­tol Hill.

The pres­i­dent, who fought hard to pre­serve his per­fect record, blasted mem­bers of Congress, in­clud­ing Democrats, for what he said was a mis­un­der­stand­ing about the im­pact of the bill. He said he un­der­stood the bill bet­ter than they did and that he feared plain­tiffs in courts would gain too much say in for­eign pol­icy by mud­dy­ing what it meant to be a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism.

If the rest of the world fol­lowed the U.S. lead, he said, peo­ple in other coun­tries could win cases and seize Amer­i­can as­sets based on ten­u­ous con­nec­tions. Law­suits could arise, for ex­am­ple, if the U.S. armed or trained for­eign po­lice or troops who went on to con­duct atrocities, Mr. Obama said.

His pleas were in­ef­fec­tive, and Congress over­rode his veto in late Septem­ber.

The clash opens a win­dow on the mod­ern pres­i­dency and one of the cen­tral pow­ers of the chief ex­ec­u­tive in the Amer­i­can sys­tem of gov­ern­ment: the right to block leg­is­la­tion ap­proved by Congress. Mr. Obama ranks in the mid­dle of the pack of re­cent pres­i­dents when it comes to suc­cess with ve­toes. He used that power a dozen times, and Congress over­rode just one of his ve­toes.

His pre­de­ces­sor, Ge­orge W. Bush, is­sued 12 ve­toes, four of which were over­rid­den. His 33 per­cent fail­ure rate was the worst since the ad­min­is­tra­tion of An­drew John­son in the 1860s. Pres­i­dents Kennedy and Lyn­don B. John­son com­bined for 51 ve­toes, and not a sin­gle one was over­rid­den.

Af­ter the over­ride of the ter­ror­ism jus­tice veto, White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest called it “the sin­gle most em­bar­rass­ing thing” Congress had done in years. He cited in part the po­ten­tial reper­cus­sions against U.S. military per­son­nel posted abroad.

Sec­ond thoughts

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, some mem­bers of Congress said they were hav­ing sec­ond thoughts.

“I would like to think there’s a way we can fix [the law] so that our ser­vice mem­bers do not have le­gal prob­lems over­seas while still pro­tect­ing the rights of the 9/11 vic­tims,” Mr. Ryan said.

Sen. John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, and Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, South Carolina Repub­li­can, led the ef­fort to force a re­con­sid­er­a­tion — though both of them voted for the bill and for the over­ride.

In Novem­ber, they pro­posed a re­vi­sion that they said was needed to pro­tect Amer­i­can troops.

“Here is the prob­lem: Ev­ery time a drone is launched, ev­ery time Amer­i­cans go in harm’s way, ev­ery time a diplo­matic en­gages in ac­tiv­ity abroad, we are sub­ject­ing them and our na­tion to law­suits, po­ten­tial im­pris­on­ment,” Mr. Gra­ham said. “We need to fix this be­cause if we don’t fix this, it will come back to haunt us.”

One Se­nate aide said the law­mak­ers tried with­out suc­cess to at­tach their re­vi­sion to the must-pass year-end spend­ing bill.

“There was an ef­fort by McCain, Gra­ham and the Saudi lob­by­ists to weaken the law as a part of the [bill], which failed,” the Repub­li­can aide said. “Given his vo­cal sup­port for the law, I can’t imag­ine Pres­i­dent Trump would sign any­thing that weak­ens it once he takes of­fice. And I’d note that so far the pa­rade of hor­ri­bles pre­dicted have not come true.”

Nei­ther Mr. McCain’s nor Mr. Gra­ham’s of­fices re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment on the prospects for ac­tion, but Jack Quinn, a lawyer who is rep­re­sent­ing more than 2,000 fam­ily mem­bers, said they are mis­rep­re­sent­ing the real is­sues at stake.

“Sens. McCain and Gra­ham have in­di­cated that they in­tend to ad­dress con­cerns, but if you read the record dis­cus­sion, quite frankly, they’re pro­ceed­ing on the ba­sis of a com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing, a lack of knowl­edge about the bill,” Mr. Quinn said.

“The con­cerns be­ing ex­pressed, and the pro­posed fixes, are the con­cerns that were ex­pressed and the fixes that have been au­thored by the king­dom of Saudi Ara­bia. This is demon­stra­ble. They are us­ing the lan­guage that the Saudi for­eign agents and lob­by­ists and PR firms are us­ing. They are sim­ply par­rot­ing their line,” he said.

The is­sue still ap­pears to be touchy for the Saudi gov­ern­ment: “The em­bassy has noth­ing on JASTA to say,” said a man who an­swered Riyadh’s em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton last week.

Mr. Ryan’s of­fice said there was no up­date, and Mr. McConnell’s staff re­ferred ques­tions to the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, which didn’t pro­vide an up­date.

With the law on the books, the le­gal case is be­gin­ning to shift. Mr. Quinn said the fam­i­lies have filed a re­quest with the ap­peals court, to which the Saudi gov­ern­ment has agreed, ask­ing that the case be re­manded to the lower district court for pro­ceed­ings con­sis­tent with the law.


NICKED: Pres­i­dent Obama fought to pre­serve his per­fect veto record be­fore the Jus­tice Against Spon­sors of Ter­ror­ism Act.


Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush had the high­est fail­ure rate since the An­drew John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion in the 1860s, with 33 per­cent of his ve­toes over­rid­den by Congress.

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