The Senate voted Wednesday to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow victims and families of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the terrorist attack 15 years ago.
The 97-1 vote easily surpassed the 67 votes required to override a presidential veto. It now goes to the House where a similar outcome is expected later Wednesday, meaning Obama will suffer his first veto override in his nearly 8 years in office and the bill will become law despite his opposition.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was the lone dissenting vote against the measure. An explanation for his position was not immediately provided by his office. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT., did not vote.
The bipartisan vote was a rebuke of the president who had argued the Justice for State Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) — which for the first time would allow suits in American courts against state sponsors of terrorist attacks inside the U.S. — could open the US government to lawsuits for the actions of military service members and diplomats.
Obama also warned it could damage America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, a troubled but key Middle East ally, and other allies who might be accused of terrorism.
But the powerful emotional appeal of providing 9/11 families a legal avenue to pursue justice proved too strong and carried the day.
The President spoke by phone to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid this week to urge them to sustain his veto. In a follow letter Tuesday, Obama said he was “firmly committed” to assisting the 9/11 families but that JASTA was the wrong approach.
“Enacting JASTA into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorists attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. Doing so would instead threaten to erode sovereign principles that protect the United States, including our U.S. Armed Forces and other officials, overseas,” Obama wrote. “That is why I vetoed the bill and why I believe you should vote to sustain the veto.”
But sponsors of the bill said it was more important to give the 9/11 families their day in court than to worry about the fallout with Saudi Arabia, which they argued wouldn’t have anything to worry about if they were not connected to the plot.
“How can anyone look at the families in the eye and tell them that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to seek justice against a foreign government responsible for the death of their loved one,” asked Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chief Republican sponsor of the bill. “At the end of the day, this vote is about doing what’s right for the American people.”
“The bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker because it would allow the victims of the 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice finally giving them the legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of a terrorist act that took the lives of their loved ones,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the chief Democratic sponsor.
The concerns raised by the White House were echoed by several senior senators who had worked to change the bill before it passed the Senate. Some of them privately complained that they agreed not to block Senate action on the bill when it first passed, even though they still had concerns, out of respect for the 9/11 families but also because they didn’t think they House planned to act on it.
One of those senators with concerns, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said he would watch for possible “blowback” from the law and determine if Congress should rewrite portions of it in the near future. He and other senators wrote a letter to Cornyn and Schumer laying out their concerns.
Despite his misgivings, Corker announced in an emotional speech on the floor he would vote to override the president’s veto in order to give the 9/11 families a chance to seek justice.