Risking an election-year public backlash, President Obama on Friday vetoed popular but controversial legislation allowing the relatives of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. Obama’s rejection of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) sets up what seems likely to be the first-ever successful congressional vote to override his veto.
“Enacting JASTA into law,” Obama warned in a lengthy veto statement, “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.”
Hours before Obama rejected the measure, his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, broke sharply with his position. “She would sign this legislation if it came to her desk,” Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Lehrich told Yahoo News by email. She had previously staked out ambiguous turf, applauding congressional “efforts” to get justice for 9/11 families without explicitly supporting the legislation.
Donald Trump’s campaign did not return requests for the Republican presidential nominee’s position. But after Obama’s veto, he released a statement saying it was “shameful and will go down as one of the low points of his presidency.”
“If elected president, I would sign such legislation should it reach my desk,” the GOP nominee vowed.
Obama’s veto sets up a congressional battle that pits the White House and its allies against supporters of the bill, who need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override Obama. The fight takes place against the backdrop of an election season in which candidates facing the voters surely dread the prospect of explaining why they sided against a measure strongly supported by the relatives of people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
The legislation never explicitly mentions Saudi Arabia, which was home to most of the 9/11 hijackers, but that American ally is widely understood to be the main target. The bill would change federal law to allow lawsuits against foreign governments or officials for injuries, death or damages stemming from an act of international terrorism. Current law recognizes “sovereign immunity,” which protects governments and government officials from civil cases.
Representatives of 9/11 families denounced the veto, saying they were “outraged and dismayed” by Obama’s decision and urging Congress to do right by them “by quickly overriding this veto.”
Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a leading author of the bill, branded Obama’s decision “disappointing” and said an override vote would give 9/11 families “the chance to seek the justice they deserve, and send a clear message that we will not tolerate those who finance terrorism in the United States.”
The Obama administration and a bipartisan group of former senior foreign policy, intelligence and military officials have warned that the legislation could lead other countries to change their laws to strip U.S. officials and armed forces personnel of legal protections.
“Were another country to behave reciprocally towards the United States, that could be a problem for some of our service members,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a Thursday hearing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, backed the bill but has recently indicated she’s rethinking her position. And some Republican senators worry about the potential affect on U.S. troops deployed overseas.
A congressional source, speaking to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity, suggested that one possible compromise would be to let the veto stand but pass modified legislation that the White House could accept. Another possibility, some argue, would be for Saudi Arabia to reach some kind of voluntary accommodation with the 9/11 families.
“The reason that we’re having conversations is to try to find an approach that would satisfy the concerns and the desire of some members of Congress to want to address the requests of the 9/11 families,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily briefing on Friday. “We’re hopeful that they can find a way to do that that doesn’t carve out the kinds of exceptions that put our diplomats and servicemembers at risk around the world.”
“How about a path forward for the 9/11 families that’s done in a fashion that will not be seen as a hostile act towards Saudi Arabia?” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said recently. “It may wind up that if nobody’s trying to accommodate this problem, we’re just going to vote. And if I have to vote, I’m going to vote to override the veto.”
The terror-lawsuit measure previously sailed through Congress: The Senate passed it without objection and the House approved it by voice vote. But while its congressional backing suggests a broad base of support for the legislation, the voting process did not put any individual on the record as backing or opposing the bill. Democratic congressional aides say they expect the White House to try to corral enough lawmakers to try to sustain Obama’s veto. They say Democrats who did not heed the administration’s initial arguments may come around when the issue is whether or not to override the president.
But Clinton’s last-minute support for the measure may complicate the White House’s efforts by letting congressional Democrats side with their presidential nominee over their president.