The Cable

Overruled: Congress Soundly Rejects Obama’s Veto of 9/11 Bill

The bill would allow U.S. families of 9/11 victims to sue the saudi government, but opponents say it would also open up washington to lawsuits

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 31: The U.S. Capitol is pictured from the West Front, August 31, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 31: The U.S. Capitol is pictured from the West Front, August 31, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to cast a long shadow over American politics, and have now led to the first congressional override of a veto signed by President Barack Obama.

After a series of impassioned floor speeches Wednesday morning, both the U.S. Senate and House acted with sweeping bipartisan comity, rejecting the president’s opposition to a bill that allows the families of American victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.

The months-long debate over the bill split some longtime national security alliances in surprising ways. GOP Sen. John McCain was a vocal supporter of the bill, while his fellow Republican and usually reliable partner on such issues, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued against it.

The Senate voted 97-1, and the House, 348 to 77.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) joined Graham in a failed effort to tweak the legislation and make it harder not only for families to pursue lawsuits, but also for the U.S. to be sued by foreigners in the future. The European Union also signaled its opposition to the bill last week in a demarche to the State Department.

But in the end, despite proclaimed widespread Democratic opposition, only Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada sided with the White House by casting the lone vote against override in the upper chamber

CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement that the bill will have “grave implications” for national security, particularly at the spy agency.

The fight put up by the White House, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies centers around the principle of sovereign immunity, which protects American officials from lawsuits. “If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries,” Brennan said, “we place our own nation’s officials in danger. No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States — and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA.”

But the Senate was unswayed. As the last lawmaker to speak before the votes were cast, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made an emotional plea on the chamber’s floor, quoting family members of those who died in the Twin Towers demanding their day in court. He called an override of the presidential veto a “moral imperative.”

The White House expended plenty of effort to block the override, and the Saudi government also opened up the coffers in a massive campaign against the legislation with teams of lobbyists.

Washington’s relationship with Riyadh has been awkward since the 9/11 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 attackers were Saudi citizens.

The Pentagon has long stationed troops on Saudi soil, and has a long-term relationship training and advising the Saudi armed forces. American military planners have also been a part of the controversial Saudi-led air war in Yemen, although in August the Pentagon announced it was pulling some staff out of the Saudi-based coordination center after widespread international condemnation of the strikes, which have been part of the killings of thousands of civilians in that war.

Fewer than five U.S. service people are still working out of the “Joint Combined Planning Cell,” down from about 45 earlier this year. The United States has also flown hundreds of refueling missions to refuel jets from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on bombing runs in Yemen.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford have both expressed their opposition to the bill in letters to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.).

In the House, the bill passed despite pleas to uphold the veto by Thornberry and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters this week, “I’ve worked with these families for a very long time, and I think they should have their day in court.”

While a welcome, and somewhat rare, victory for the Republican majority on Capitol Hill, it comes with some bitterness. The issue is far cry from the party’s top priorities coming into the legislative session — taking apart Obamacare, peeling back government regulations, and passing trade bills. It also opens the United States to a tidal wave of lawsuits from aggrieved parties across the globe, and possibly creating a boon for another Republican punching bag: trial lawyers.

But uncertainty remains. Before the vote, Corker admitted that “I’ve had tremendous difficulty with this one,” calling it “an imperfect solution” given the concerns over immunity. But some lawmakers have said they expect the bill to be tweaked in Congress’s post-election lame duck session, and Corker added, “I think that we will be dealing with overcoming this over time.”

The White House blasted the vote, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying, “this is the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983,” calling it “an abdication” of its responsibility. In 1983, the Senate overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of an Oregon lands transfer bill 95-0.

Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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