In an overwhelming 97-1 vote on Wednesday, the Senate pushed to override a veto by President Obama of legislation that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the attack that killed over 3,000 civilians. Senators were followed by lawmakers in the House, who voted to override the bill in a 388-77 vote, marking the first veto overridden by Congress during Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House.
The Obama administration wasted no time lashing out after the initial Senate vote. As White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters from on board Air Force One, “I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983.”
President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act last Friday, claiming the bill undermines the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and “threatens to strip all foreign governments of immunity from judicial process in the United States based solely upon allegations by private litigants.”
“We already have ways of addressing state-sponsored terrorism,” the president claimed in a letter to Senator Harry Reid — the lone senator to vote in support of the veto.
“Under JASTA,” he continued, “this very limited class of potential foreign state defendants would be expanded to encompass every country in the world.” He claimed the legislation “threatens to upset immunity protections that benefit the United States more than any other nation,” and if passed, could be “devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members…foreign affair and intelligence communities, as well as others who work in furtherance of U.S. national security.”
However, according to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the president’s claims are “unpersuasive.” Cornyn, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, is firm in his assessment that “the bill is narrowly-tailored and applies only to acts of terrorism that occur on U.S. soil,” according to the Associated Press. “This legislation is really about pursuing justice. The families have already suffered too much. They’ve already suffered untold tragedy, of course, and they deserve to find a path to closure that only justice can provide,” stated the Texas Senator.
Despite the overwhelming vote to override the veto, there are concerns about the bill’s ramifications. Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, voted in favor of the legislation but voiced his grievances in a floor speech, stating:
“There is a concern of unintended consequences, including irresponsible applications to U.S. international activities by other countries. While I have faith and confidence in the American legal system, the same faith does not necessarily extend to the fairness of the legal systems of other countries that may claim that they are taking similar action against America when they’re not.”
Nevertheless, the senator also stressed that “[t]he risks of shielding the perpetrators of terrorism from justice are greater than the risks this legislation may pose to America’s presence around the world.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also stated he had “tremendous concerns” but concluded the families of the victims have the right to seek justice.
One of the most alarming statements on the bill came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, when she said, “We didn’t pay much attention to this, and boy is that ever a lesson learned.”
An important question for Ms. Feinstein might be — what exactly did you just pass?