Congress votes to override Obama for first time


Congress voted Wednesday to override President Obama for the first time in his eight-year tenure, as the House followed the Senate in rejecting a veto of legislation allowing families of terrorist victims to sue governments suspected of sponsoring terrorism.

{mosads}The House easily cleared the two-thirds threshold to push back against the veto. The final tally was 348-77, with 18 Republicans and 59 Democrats voting not to override the veto.

The Senate voted 97-1 in favor of the override earlier in the day, with only Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voting to sustain the president’s veto.

“We can no longer allow those who injure and kill Americans to hide behind legal loopholes denying justice to the victims of terror,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).

The White House immediately slammed lawmakers following the Senate vote.

“I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One, an apparent reference to a 95-0 vote to override President Reagan that year.

Only one member of House Democratic leadership voted to sustain the president’s veto: Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.).

None of the 59 Democrats who voted against the veto override are considered vulnerable heading into their reelection races this year.

Among the Republicans who sided with the president were five committee chairmen: Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas), Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (Minn.), Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (Texas) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (Calif.). 

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) voted “present.”

The override was widely expected in both chambers, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle characterizing it as an act of justice for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) would amend current law to allow victims of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to sue countries that are not formally designated as sponsors of terrorism — like Saudi Arabia.

Written primarily at the behest of 9/11 victims’ families, the bill comes as a response to lingering suspicion that the Saudi government was somehow involved in the attacks. 

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens, and there have long been rumors about ties between al Qaeda and the government in Riyadh.

Saudi officials have for years denied that their government had any role in plotting the attacks. The 9/11 Commission report said that neither the Saudi government “as an institution” nor its senior officials funded the attackers, and 28 recently declassified pages from a congressional report contained no smoking gun. 

The White House had lobbied fiercely against the legislation, making personal arguments to both Reid and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as recently as the beginning of this week.

The bill also faced forceful pushback from military and intelligence officials from within the administration, including current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, CIA Director John Brennan and the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Critics warn that JASTA will undermine longstanding principles of sovereign immunity that protect U.S. government and officials without improving the U.S.’s ability to respond to terrorist attacks.

“Other countries could attempt to use JASTA to justify the creation of similar exceptions to immunity targeted against U.S policies and activities they oppose,” Obama wrote in a Tuesday letter to McConnell and Reid. 

“The consequences of JASTA could be devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members — and there is no doubt that the consequences could be equally significant for our foreign affairs and intelligence communities.”

Saudi officials have also reportedly threatened to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets in order to protect them from being frozen by court rulings, although economists doubt they will follow through. 

But those fears were brushed aside on Capitol Hill, where supporters argued that the bill is narrowly written. 

“This law was really finely drawn. It applies specifically to state involvement in a terrorist attack. This is really a slight change to the way the law is now,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in the House, told The Hill Tuesday. 

The legislation also includes a safeguard: It allows the Justice and State departments to put a stay on any litigation by certifying to a judge that the United States is “engaged in good-faith discussions with the foreign-state defendant concerning the resolution of claims against the foreign state.”

Some leading Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the Senate expressed hesitation last week, and there was an 11-hour bid in the House from Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to warn lawmakers of the potential impact on U.S. officials.

But ultimately those concerns did not gain enough traction to undercut the two-thirds majority needed to force the bill into law.

– Updated at 3:57 p.m.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Harry Reid Jason Chaffetz Mitch McConnell
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