Defying a seemingly united Congress and risking a public backlash, President Obama will veto legislation allowing relatives of the 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts, the White House confirmed on Monday. Obama’s rejection of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act will trigger what seems likely to be the first-ever successful congressional vote to override his veto.
“The president feels strongly about this, and I do anticipate that the president will veto the legislation when it’s presented to him,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily briefing.
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 states 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.
The White House has argued that eroding the legal principle of sovereign immunity could lead other countries to change their laws to permit their courts to try cases against the U.S. government or its diplomats and military personnel.
“It’s not hard to imagine other countries using this law as an excuse to haul U.S. diplomats or U.S. service members or even U.S. companies into courts all around the world,” Earnest said Monday. “Our concern is not limited to the impact it could have on our relationship with one country, but rather [its] impact on our relationship with every country around the world.”
The terror-lawsuit measure sailed through Congress: The Senate passed it without objection and the House approved it by voice vote on Friday. 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.
“In many cases, we had members of Congress who are sympathetic to our concerns,” Earnest said. “But I think those same members of Congress were concerned about the impact that this would have on their political standing to oppose this bill.”
Still, Earnest acknowledged, “there’s no denying the political potency of this issue.”