Senate

Congress steamrolls Obama’s veto

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Congress delivered a stinging rebuke to President Obama Wednesday as both chambers voted overwhelmingly to override his veto of a 9/11 victims’ rights bill.

It was the first time lawmakers had overturned an Obama veto, with Democrats deserting him en masse to enact the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The measure allows victims to sue foreign sponsors of terrorism for attacks that take place on U.S. soil.

The bill is aimed squarely at Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, which is suspected of links to the hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

Saudi Arabia denies any connection to the attacks and lobbied fiercely against the bill.

{mosads}The trouncing angered White House officials, who lashed out at what they saw as a wrongheaded move by lawmakers failing to consider the impact on U.S. foreign policy and personnel abroad.

“I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983,” Obama spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One. 

Earnest was responding to a reporter who informed him that the last time the Senate voted in such lopsided fashion to override a veto was in 1983. The Senate that year reversed Ronald Reagan’s veto of a bill giving several acres of land to a group of retirees who inadvertently bought government property because of a surveying error.

Obama called the override a “mistake” and said Congress is setting a “dangerous precedent.”

“It’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard. And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard,” Obama said at a CNN town hall.

In the Senate, Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who is retiring at the end of the year, was the only member to vote to sustain Obama’s veto. The vote was 97–1. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Hillary Clinton’s running mate, who stated his support for the override, missed the vote.

Not a single Democrat came to the Senate floor before the vote to argue for Obama’s position.

The House voted to override 348–77, clearing the two-thirds threshold required by the Constitution. Eighteen Republicans and 59 Democrats voted to sustain Obama’s action; Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) was the only member of the Democratic leadership to vote with the president.

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.”

White House officials were shaking their heads over Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) observation, made to several reporters Tuesday, that few senators fully understood the legislation when they agreed to pass it in May without a roll-call vote.

“As you look at it and talk to people now, people on the Judiciary Committee didn’t even realize at the time what was happening when it went to the floor,” Corker said.

Recriminations flew both ways, as lawmakers accused the White House of making a lackadaisical effort to stop the bill.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas), the lead GOP sponsor of the legislation, said the administration didn’t seem all that concerned about the outcome as the vote neared.

“What’s so remarkable to me is the detachment of this White House from anything to do with the legislative process,” he said.

“They were basically missing in action during this whole process.”

Corker said Wednesday he was unable to get a meeting with White House officials to discuss the legislation after reaching out to them “multiple times.”

“There’s been zero involvement from the White House, zero, and when you have a veto like this it takes involvement,” he said. “There’s nothing.”

Administration officials said they knew from the start that Obama’s veto was unlikely to survive an override vote — the politics surrounding the bill had become so charged that they overwhelmed the more abstract arguments for the importance of respecting foreign sovereign immunity.

Any talk that Obama had a chance of winning a showdown on the Senate and House floors didn’t come from the White House, one official said.

The vote was a big win for New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the bill’s lead Democratic sponsor in the Senate. He pushed the legislation for years at the behest of his home state’s constituents, who suffered the brunt of the terrorist attacks 15 years ago.

Schumer said he didn’t relish taking on his own president but said there was a pressing need to deliver a measure of justice to the victims of Sept. 11.

“This is a decision I do not take lightly, but as one of the authors of this legislation I am a firm believer in its purpose,” he said in a floor speech delivered shortly before the vote.

“Do we really want it established inflexibly in precedent that foreign actors directly responsible for financing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil are beyond the reach of justice?”

The legislation amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act so foreign sponsors of terrorism cannot invoke sovereign immunity to stay out of U.S. courts if sued.

Even though senators decided with near unanimity to overturn Obama’s veto, some acknowledged doubts about the bill in the aftermath.

A group of senators huddled on the floor Tuesday to discuss the possibility of moving legislation in the next several months to narrow the scope of the law, potentially limiting the legal options of U.S. plaintiffs but also giving more protection to Americans who might end up in foreign courts.

Jordain Carney, Cristina Marcos and Katie Bo Williams contributed.

Tags Bob Corker Charles Schumer Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Jason Chaffetz John Cornyn Tim Kaine

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