White House pressures lawmakers to abandon Saudi 9/11 bill

White House pressures lawmakers to abandon Saudi 9/11 bill
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President Obama is holding off on a veto of legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in hopes that lawmakers can be persuaded to withdraw their support for the bill.

The White House received the legislation on Monday after it unanimously passed the House and Senate. Obama aides have said he will veto it, putting him at risk of the first veto override of his presidency.   

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But White House officials have repeatedly declined to say when the veto will occur. 

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest on Friday refused to give a timeline. It was at least the third time this week he had declined to do so. 

“We continue to make our forceful, principled argument to members of Congress,” Earnest said when asked about possible changes to the bill. “There’s openness to our argument, there is even sympathy for our argument. We just need to turn that into votes. And we’ll continue to make the case." 

The president has until Sept. 23 to send his veto message back to Congress. If he waits until the deadline, he could potentially push the veto override vote into the lame-duck session after the elections. Congress could recess as early as next week to head back to the campaign trail.

A delay could give the administration more time to convince lawmakers to abandon support for the bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).   

While an override of Obama’s veto had been seen as a near-certainty last week, there are signs that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are wavering on the legislation. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama MORE (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE (R-S.C.), a prominent national-security hawk, are voicing worries about negative repercussions from the bill, saying it could open up the U.S. to legal retaliation from other countries.

"Let's face it, our alleged drone attacks have killed civilians in Pakistan. Our alleged drone attacks have killed civilians in Afghanistan, and I think once you begin opening the door for these type of activities it can be very problematic," Corker said Thursday.  

"It's a delicate situation," Graham said. "Nobody wants to be seen as opposing justice for the 9/11 families, but at the end of the day we have a world to manage, and right now the world is not being well-managed." 

Still, in a statement to The Hill, Corker suggested the onus on Obama to find a legislative compromise.

 

“Unless the White House offers a solution that appropriately addresses both sovereign immunity issues and the concerns of 9/11 families, the veto override will likely be overwhelming,” Corker said.

Other Democrats who back the 9/11 bill are eager to avoid an override to steer clear of a damaging political showdown with the president in the weeks leading up to the election. 

They’re reluctant to make Obama spend the political capital he’ll need in the lame-duck session to seek action on agenda items like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.  

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  Congress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, said Obama’s warnings about the bill could sway his vote on a potential veto override. 

"Certainly I'll listen to the president's veto message and his concerns, but I've always said there needs to be effective ways for compensating victims,” he said this week. “So that has been my concern ... but I'll be listening to what the White House says, as always."  

Yet preventing a veto override is an uphill battle, given that the measure passed without objection through both chambers of Congress, a rare occurrence except for non-controversial bills.  

“I think you don’t have to have an advanced degree in math to understand the significant support that exists in the United States Congress for this bill,” Earnest said Thursday.

Obama says the measure could undermine the concept of sovereign immunity, which prevents foreign governments from being subject to U.S. lawsuits in most cases. 

The administration is worried that U.S. military service members and diplomats could be subject to legal action overseas if other countries pass reciprocal measures. Officials are also wary the legislation could anger the Saudis, who are already frustrated with the nuclear deal Obama helped broker with Iran. 

On the other side are groups representing families of 9/11 victims, who have turned the measure into a powerful political issue ahead of the elections. 

Seven 9/11 family members quickly criticized Corker and Graham, arguing a meeting with the Saudi foreign minister led them "to forsake the families and seek a two-month delay in a vote to override." 

"To add insult to injury, Senator Graham’s and Senator Corker’s offices are now telling 9/11 family members who call in that the senators are 100 percent behind the override, that the families should calm down and all will be well," they added. "We need a vote immediately after the president’s veto.” 

The White House’s attempt to avoid an override vote might not prove successful, as Senate leaders in both parties say they’re committed to having one.

John CornynJohn CornynCOVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (Texas), the number-two Senate Republican and a co-author of the bill, wants the upper chamber to remain in session to hold an override vote.  

"The president's talked about vetoing [JASTA],” Cornyn told reporters this week. “I would presume that we would not leave until we've had the chance to vote on a veto override following the [budget bill].”

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill No signs of breakthrough for stalemated coronavirus talks State aid emerges as major hurdle to reviving COVID-19 talks MORE (R-Ky.), referenced the Senate schedule when asked whether the chamber would stay in town to override Obama’s veto. 

"The president has until next week to send it up,” Stewart said. “We are [scheduled] to be in next week."

McConnell is thought to be eager to leave so that incumbents can campaign for reelection.  

Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill Kamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' Obama calls filibuster 'Jim Crow relic,' backs new Voting Rights Act bill MORE (D-Nev.) is also backing an override vote.  

“I’m not going to go into how I feel about Saudi Arabia in much detail, other than to say they're not one of my favorite countries,” Reid said. “And I support Sen. [Charles] Schumer. It was his bill in the Senate. And I support that legislation."

- Updated at 5:39 p.m.