National Security

Congress set for Saudi showdown with Obama

Victoria Sarno Jordan


The Senate will stay in session next week for a looming showdown with President Obama over legislation making it easier for the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.

Obama is expected to veto the legislation by Friday, the deadline for him to use his veto pen. The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support, suggesting the two-thirds majorities in both chambers necessary to override the president’s veto are there.

{mosads}If Congress were to leave Washington for the campaign trail this week, as many had expected, the administration might have had a better shot at convincing Democrats to uphold an Obama veto in a lame-duck session after the elections.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday vowed the Senate would stay in the Capitol to deal with the issue, as well as a separate push to deny an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

“Both of those we’ll have to deal with before we depart,” McConnell told reporters.

The leader offered a similar message in private, telling rank-and-file Republicans during their lunch that they will reconvene next week if Obama waits until the last minute to veto the popular bill.

The expected vote on the veto override will give Senate negotiators a few more days to reach agreement on a stopgap funding measure to keep the government open past Election Day, likely until Dec. 9.

The Senate voted Tuesday night to advance debate on the measure, but negotiators are still hashing out details over the funding.

“I think we are close to finalizing an agreement that we can go to the floor on,” McConnell said Tuesday.

He acknowledged the talks have dragged on for longer than he expected and pledged to brief his members on any deal before bringing it to the floor.

The fight over Saudi Arabia has emerged as the more dramatic congressional issue to be dealt with before the elections.

Obama has taken his time to veto the bill, something Republicans hoping to return to the campaign trail have noticed. 

The fight is taking place against the backdrop of a pitched battle for the Senate, with Democrats needing to hold the White House and gain four seats to retake their majority.

“Veto the bill if that’s what you’ve decided to do,” Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said at a press conference. “We hope you wouldn’t, but if you’re going to veto it, veto it and send it back to us so we can have the vote to override that veto.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday reaffirmed Obama’s intention to veto the bill. 

“The president will veto this legislation. I don’t have an update for you in terms of timing,” he told reporters. Earnest added that the White House is focused on lobbying members who have expressed reservations about the bill. 

The president has 10 days, excluding Sundays, from when he receives the bill to veto it. The deadline on this bill is Friday.

Cornyn expressed confidence there would be more than enough votes from members of both parties to countermand Obama.

The bill would amend the federal criminal code to permit lawsuits against foreign states and officials believed to be involved in terrorist attacks. The Senate approved the legislation by unanimous consent in May and the House passed it unanimously this month.

The administration argues the bill would lead to reciprocal lawsuits against U.S. citizens.

A handful of senators are on the fence over the legislation because of concerns that it could open up U.S. citizens to retaliatory measures, but the White House has shown little interest in negotiating. 

If it comes down to an all-or-nothing proposition, the legislation will likely have the votes to overcome the veto.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he hasn’t heard from the White House about potential changes, despite publicly urging the administration to reach out. 

“I can’t feel a lot of energy coming from the White House on this issue,” he said. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wants Obama to back down from the fight, saying the president’s support “would be another sign of strong national resolve.” 

The White House has given no indication that Obama, who has been a vocal opponent of the 9/11 bill, would be willing to reverse course. Blumenthal, asked if he had a reason to believe the president will sign it, said he has “no additional information on the record.”

Republicans suspect Democrats of slow-walking the process to keep endangered Republican senators off the campaign trail and to raise the specter of a possible government shutdown next week. Congress needs to pass the funding resolution by Sept. 30 to keep federal departments and agencies open.

“Democrats are just dragging their heels in order to keep our 2016 incumbents in town and not back home,” said Cornyn.

As the clock ticks down to another potential shutdown, the pressure will ramp up on GOP leaders, who know that they would likely get blamed for it. Their party’s approval rating took a hit during the last shutdown, in 2013.

“Democrats I think are playing delay-ball, a slowdown for political purposes,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) on Tuesday scolded Republicans for being too eager to leave town after just getting back from a seven-week summer recess.

“This Republican-led Senate has already worked fewer days than any time since 1956, and with their mad rush to get home again, they’ll even break that record,” he said.

McConnell on Tuesday again postponed a vote on the stopgap funding measure in the absence of a deal. The Senate was supposed to vote on it at 2:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. but missed both soft deadlines.  

Two senior Democratic aides said their side submitted a proposal to McConnell Monday that called for a clean continuing resolution that included compromise language to fund efforts to fight the Zika virus without controversial policy riders.

But Cornyn told The Hill Tuesday afternoon that the Obama administration and Democrats are still asking for various extraneous provisions such as funding to rebuild the water infrastructure in Flint, Mich. Stories of contaminated drinking water made national headlines earlier this year.

“The administration has asked for a number of anomalies, so every indication is that it’s not going to be a completely clean CR,” he said. “There’s been some discussion on additional spending on Flint.”

Republicans have pushed for policy riders of their own, including language to stop the Department of Transportation from finalizing truck safety rules.

They also want a rider spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would stop the administration from relinquishing the Department of Commerce’s oversight of domain names to an international body.

Tags Bob Corker Harry Reid John Cornyn Mitch McConnell Pat Roberts Richard Blumenthal Ted Cruz

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