Just one day after leading the first override of a veto during President Barack Obama's time in office, Republican leaders in Congress called for significant changes to legislation allowing families of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. They also blamed the president for failing to adequately warn them against supporting the measure.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would enable U.S. victims of terrorism to file suits against foreign governments. President Obama vetoed the bill, arguing that eliminating the notion of sovereign immunity would jeopardize U.S. interests and put American service members and elected officials at risk of being hauled into foreign courts.
"It's a dangerous precedent and it's an example of why sometimes you have to do what's hard," Obama said during a CNN town hall this week. "If you’re perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that’s a hard vote for people to take. But it would have been the right thing to do.”
The New York Times carried the backstory on the bill:
"The bill’s triumphant journey came without significant congressional debate or intense pressure from voters, but rather through the sheer will of the victims’ families, who seized on the 15th anniversary of the attack and an election year to lean on members of Congress. That effort was aided by the fact that members’ collective patience with the kingdom has waned in recent years.
The Times also noted:
"The override underscored the inherent smallness of Republican victories against Mr. Obama since seizing the majority in Congress in 2015. The veto override, while thrilling to many Republicans, came on a bill that was far from the Republicans’ self-identified priorities of unraveling the health care law and pushing back on government regulations. Nor was it a measure they had hoped to secure with the president’s help, like overhauling the tax code or passing a major trade agreement."
The House voted 348 to 77 to override Obama's veto, with only 18 Republicans and 59 Democrats siding with the president. The Senate vote was 97 to 1, with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid casting the sole vote in opposition.
The White House called the bipartisan vote “the single most embarrassing thing that the United States has done, possibly since 1983.”
Less than 24 hours after Congress' extraordinary step, the two top Republicans in Congress said they were prepared to rewrite the legislation — but not before engaging in a bit of the blame game.
On Thursday House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged that the bill, which narrows a foreign nation’s immunity from legal challenge, could have unintended consequences. But both GOP leaders were also quick to blame the president for "dropping the ball" by failing to engage with Congress on the legislation before it passed.
"I wish the president — I hate to blame everything on him and I don’t — but it would have been helpful had he, we, had a discussion about this much earlier than last week," McConnell said.
McConnell told reporters, “Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were but nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped.”
The Wall Street Journal also found a way to blame Obama for the Congressional override. The editorial board wrote Wednesday, "wouldn't you know that Congress finally challenges President Obama on foreign policy, and it's in a bad cause that will harm US interests. Too bad the president did so little to stop it."
The White House, however, had warned as much in with an unsuccessful last-minute barrage by the defense secretary, CIA director and other top national security officials to try to stop the override. All wrote weighty letters to Congress voicing their concerns about the potential harm, leading some lawmakers to publicly express reservations ahead of this week’s vote. But most went ahead and supported the override anyway.
The White House also pushed back against Republicans' efforts to deflect blame for the bill on the president.
“What’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Thursday. “Ignorance is not an excuse.”
Now a bipartisan group of Senators is warning that the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act could backfire by exposing the United States to retaliatory lawsuits by foreign victims of terrorism:
House Republicans have also indicated support for amending the law.
“I'd like to think that there's a way we could fix so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said to reporters on Thursday.
According to Bloomberg News, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said the Saudis are interested in options for tweaking the law — something that couldn’t happen until after the November election.