Pelosi will vote to override Obama veto on Saudi 9/11 bill

Pelosi will vote to override Obama veto on Saudi 9/11 bill
© Greg Nash

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday she'll oppose President Obama if he vetoes legislation empowering families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts.

ADVERTISEMENT

"I've worked with these families for a very long time, and I think they should have their day in court," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

Pelosi, who was the top Democratic on the House Intelligence Committee at the time of the 2001 attacks, noted that she had sided with the families in the controversial push to create the 9/11 Commission, an independent panel that investigated the attacks. 

"When it went to the floor, I was accused of being a traitor for bringing it up … [and] it did not pass at that time," she said.

Only after lawmakers attached the measure to a must-pass vehicle — and after the families of 9/11 victims increased their pressure — did Congress approve the outside probe. 

"[It] was the mobilization of the families," Pelosi said, predicting that the vote to override Obama's expected veto would succeed for the same reason.

"I think it's going to happen," she said. "The families will have the votes."

Dubbed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, the legislation would empower those injured in the 9/11 attacks and the families of the deceased to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. Saudi officials have long been suspected of supporting the hijackers who carried out the strikes — charges the nation denies — and the victims have sought for years to bring their cases before a judge.

The White House is vowing to veto the bill, warning that it would erode decades-old diplomatic immunity protections — solidified by a 1976 law exempting foreign governments from suits in U.S. courts —  thereby subjecting the United States to similar suits around the globe.

Some supporters of the bill have readily acknowledged those risks but say the potential to secure "justice" for the victims outweighs the reciprocity concerns.

Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraTrump drops bid to add citizenship question to 2020 census Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Appeals court appears skeptical of upholding ObamaCare mandate | Drug pricing deal faces GOP pushback | Trump officials look for plan B after court strikes drug TV ad rule Democratic group hits GOP attorneys general in six-figure ad campaign on ObamaCare MORE (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said supporters understand "that the sovereign immunity principle … could have some results that we don't like in the future."

"But right now," he said, "some of us feel very comfortable providing this narrow limitation to allow American families of victims of 9/11 to have their day in court."

In a separate interview, Becerra invited other countries to adopt a similar law.

"If the other governments say, 'OK, we're going to do the same thing to you,' I'd say, 'OK, narrowly tailored, if our government is involved in something like 9/11 with your people, hey, why would I want to stop you from seeking justice if you've got evidence?' "

The White House also has concerns the legislation will be a thumb in the eye of Saudi leaders at a time when the two nations have allied in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Pelosi said Thursday that the White House concerns "are very legitimate," though "the families think that they've addressed many of those concerns in the legislation." 

"This is difficult," she said.

Pelosi said she's received no pressure from the Obama administration ahead of the expected veto and override vote, saying the administration has been "very respectful of the concerns" of individual members facing a highly sensitive issue.

"The White House has not asked me to do anything on this," Pelosi said. "I believe that they understand that this is an issue that members are going to be left to their own [volition]."

The timing of the bill has influenced the debate. Not only is the presidential election just weeks away, but this month marked the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — an event that's fueled the emotions surrounding the sensitive legislation and put the White House on the defensive over its veto threat.

"Taken out of the context of the presidential election and politicizing it, the president's veto might be supported by a majority," said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).

Many of the president's closest Democratic allies are urging him to sign the bill rather than veto it. And some think he'll do just that.

"He's conflicted himself. … He's trying to balance things and get allies, [while] at the same time he's trying to defend American citizens," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). "I'm not so sure he's going to veto it."

Regional concerns are also playing an enormous role in the debate, with the lawmakers in the New York area — many of whom have worked closely for years with victims’ families in their districts — leading the charge behind the legislation.  

"I represent a district that lost a lot of people on 9/11," Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said Wednesday. "So I get the president's argument, but I'm a representative. I'm representing a lot of people who want some accountability."

While passage of the measure was unanimous in both chambers, the veto override — while expected to be successful — will face some opposition. 

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), for one, said he intends to sustain Obama's veto. How many other lawmakers will join him? "I don't know," Hastings said.