Congress bucks Obama veto of bill to let 9/11 families sue
Republicans and Democrats linked arms and delivered a stinging defeat to President Obama, voting to override his veto of a bill that would give victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks a chance to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts over the behavior of Saudi officials they believe may have been complicit in the attack.
The Senate voted 97-1, while the House voted 348-77 — both far more than the two-thirds needed to enact the legislation over Mr. Obama’s veto.
“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,” said Terry Strada, national chairwoman of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism.
It’s the first override of Mr. Obama’s tenure, and for Democrats it marked a rare rebuke of their party leader, whom they’ve defended on thorny issues ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to Obamacare. But Democrats said they couldn’t go along this time, arguing that giving Americans their chance at a day in court was too important a principle.
The White House had tried to rally its troops but, failing that, lashed out at Congress, saying lawmakers didn’t even understand the law they just passed.
“This is the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983,” said press secretary Josh Earnest, who delivered the scolding as he traveled with Mr. Obama in Virginia.
Mr. Obama himself was more measured, calling the override “a mistake.” He said he understood the vote, but accused his former colleagues in Congress of caving to emotional pressure from the victims’ families.
Mr. Obama argues it’s his job to handle foreign policy, and he said those issues shouldn’t be left to lawyers, private citizens and the courts. That marks a stunning turnaround for the former constitutional law professor who, in other areas, has regularly pushed for victims to have more access to the courts.
The president also said he fears other countries will retaliate against the U.S. by filing lawsuits in their courts against Americans, including U.S. troops operating overseas.
“So if you have a situation where we’re doing disaster relief in the Philippines or some other — or Haiti, and a traffic accident happens where, tragically, a citizen of that country is killed, if they passed the same kind of legislation that we just passed, now, potentially, that family in that country could start suing the United States. They might say we’re going to take jurisdiction over that individual,” Mr. Obama said in a town hall on CNN.
For the first time in his presidency, he was unconvincing, even to his own party.
“Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
The bill’s backers rejected each of Mr. Obama’s objections, saying he was creating straw men. They said the new law only applies in cases of terrorism, and American troops, who aren’t being trained to kill civilians or engage in terrorist strikes, won’t be affected.
The bill, dubbed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, was the 10th veto of Mr. Obama’s tenure. In many of the previous cases, Congress didn’t even bother to hold a vote to override the president.
But lawmakers speeded this override through, acting just five days after the veto — and getting it done before they leave for a long pre-Election Day vacation.
The rejection was particularly bruising for a White House that had insisted it was making headway over the last couple of weeks in winning lawmakers to its point of view.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the curator of Mr. Obama’s legislative agenda over the last eight years, was the only senator to back Mr. Obama.
Mr. Reid, who was on the Senate floor repeatedly, did not offer a public explanation for his vote. But his office released a letter Mr. Obama sent pleading with the Nevada Democrat to stand firm.
Mr. Earnest thanked Mr. Reid for showing “courage” in standing with Mr. Obama.
In the House, 225 Republicans and 123 Democrats voted for the override. Only 18 Republicans and 59 Democrats voted to sustain Mr. Obama’s veto. One Democrat, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, voted “present.”