How the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill

New York Rep. Pete King (R) had a warning for his colleagues in early September.

They didn’t want to get on the bad side of victims’ families as the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approached.

{mosads}Two days before the anniversary, family members were scheduled to hold an event on the Capitol steps to demand action on a bill that would allow them to sue Saudi Arabia for the attacks.

King recognized the power of the moment.

The political clout of the 9/11 families helps explain why Congress this week overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto for the first time on the measure.

It was a stunning failure for the White House, which lashed out at lawmakers, calling the vote the “single most embarrassing thing” they had done in decades.

A day after the override, GOP leaders were already talking about making changes to the bill as the White House and Capitol Hill bickered over the events of the week.

Here’s how the Saudi-9/11 bill became a snowball rolling downhill, with all but the White House and Saudi government getting out of the way.

A long fight

The Sept. 11 families for years had pushed for the legislation, after repeated efforts to hold members of the Saudi royal family responsible were blocked in court, thanks to a 1976 law giving foreign states immunity in U.S. courts.

Saudi officials have long been accused of having links to the 9/11 hijackers. Fifteen of the 19 men who brought down passenger planes that day were Saudi citizens.

But Saudi officials have long denied their government had any role in the Sept. 11 plot. The 9/11 Commission found no evidence that the Saudi government “as an institution” or senior officials funded or provided support for the organization.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had championed the effort for at least seven years and in 2015, he teamed up with Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) to offer the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

The bill altered existing U.S. law to allow victims of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to sue foreign governments that are not officially designated as state sponsors of terrorism — like Saudi Arabia.

Obama lobbying effort begins

By the spring, the Obama administration had quietly mobilized a lobbying effort against the bill.

Officials told lawmakers the bill could put Americans overseas at legal risk and that they were wary about escalating tensions with Riyadh, which was already upset with the president’s decision to broker a nuclear deal with its regional rival, Iran.

The Senate passed the measure unanimously in May, disregarding Obama’s objections.

They also ignored Saudi Arabia’s threat to sell off $750 billion in U.S. assets if the bill became law, which was published on the front page of Schumer’s hometown newspaper, The New York Times.

Still, it was far from a given the bill would become law.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had expressed reservations in May, and it was uncertain whether it would get a vote in the House.

But pressure from the victims’ families was growing.

Throughout the summer, they engaged in a systematic, member-by-member lobbying effort to get a vote on the measure — and in September, they got a very powerful ally.

Goodlatte’s role

The week before the anniversary of the attacks, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) offered his support for the measure, according to King.

Goodlatte frequently works in concert with House leadership, collaborating on high-profile issues like the effort to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Several members told The Hill that Goodlatte’s approval of the bill was key to their decision to vote to override the veto.

Meanwhile, the case from opponents was falling on deaf ears.

Saudi officials urged the U.S. to publish 28 secret pages from a congressional inquiry into 9/11, believing it would quiet the allegations the kingdom was involved. But the July release failed to stem any of the momentum for the legislation in the Capitol.

“The 28 pages that were declassified, they were pretty clear about there not being a role at the highest levels or some kind of mass coordination, but it wasn’t totally clear,” a Democratic aide said. “And that’s where this kind of rises and falls.”

An opportunity seized

Ryan from the beginning had promised he wouldn’t stand in the bill’s way, whatever his reservations, according to King.

A source close to the Speaker said “he is not in the business of thwarting the will of the majority” of the House.

With leadership’s tacit support and just days to go until the anniversary, King saw his opportunity.

“I said [to members], how awkward it would be if they’re having the commemoration for 9/11 on the steps of the Capitol on Friday and 9/11 families are standing there angry that it’s not being voted on,” King told The Hill. “It would be a very bad moment for the House.”

House leadership scheduled the vote for that day, and it was approved unanimously by voice vote, to thunderous applause.

By then, an override of Obama’s promised veto seemed like a sure thing, and the White House knew it had little chance of stopping it.

“I would say that we always knew what the outcome was going to be on this, that the politics were untenable for members of Congress,” an administration official said. “Nobody here was sort of under the illusion that the worm was going to turn.”

The administration came to that realization “after the initial vote,” the official said, adding that any talk that Obama had a chance of winning a showdown with the House and Senate did not come from the White House.

White House doesn’t give up

Still, the president reached out personally to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ahead of the override vote, urging them to disavow the measure. A letter to Reid was read aloud at a Democratic caucus meeting.

In the days leading up to the override on Wednesday — which passed with one “sustain” vote in the Senate and 77 in the House — cracks began to emerge in support for the bill.

It wasn’t enough to shift the tide. But dissecting the vote afterwards, several lawmakers hinted that deliberation over the bill was too rushed.

“I don’t think we had enough time to consider all of the ramifications,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said on Tuesday. “It’s a political issue that people jumped on without really thoroughly looking at everything.”

Blame game

Other Republicans blamed the White House for bungling the lobbying process.

“It seems to be a failure to communicate early about the potential consequences of a piece of legislation that was obviously very popular,” McConnell said Thursday.

According to Cornyn, Obama didn’t step in personally to lobby members until after the bill reached his desk — when it was too late.

The administration has vehemently denied charges that it wasn’t proactive enough to block the measure.

White House, State Department and Defense Department officials had conversations both with members and staff about the bill, an administration official told The Hill.

Ben Cardin (Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had “numerous” conversations with Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials.  

“I would not say the White House was hands off,” he said. “They made their views known pretty early that they found this bill unacceptable.”

Even Cornyn claimed in an April floor speech that “the Obama administration is pulling out all the stops” to block the bill.  

White House officials accused lawmakers of shirking their duty to educate themselves about what they were voting on, especially after McConnell and Ryan rushed to call for fixes to the bill, echoing Obama’s concerns about its “potential consequences.”

“What’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress: Ignorance is not an excuse,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.

Still, some say that the White House underestimated the level of popular support that JASTA would get.

“The White House figured it was going to pass the Senate but it was never gonna go anywhere in the House. So they didn’t engage in any negotiations or any serious effort at all,” said King.

Others say the administration was simply up against an indomitable force when it placed itself in opposition to the families of those killed on Sept. 11.  

“The politics of this were too raw and too easy in some way,” said a Democratic Senate aide, who declined to criticize the White House’s lobbying effort.

“The White House was put in an extremely difficult position. They tried to do the right thing by international law and standard and the protection of our assets overseas, but they couldn’t overcome the most raw kind of emotions and politics that exist in our country.”

Julian Hattem, Jordain Carney, Scott Wong and Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Goodlatte Charles Schumer Harry Reid John Cornyn John Kerry Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Saudi Arabia

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