WASHINGTON — The Senate delivered an overwhelming rebuke to the Obama administration today by overriding the president’s veto of a bill that would allow families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue countries that support terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), passed the Senate by unanimous consent back in May.
The bill is also forward-looking: if groups like Hamas or ISIS kill an American on American soil, the bill would enable victims to sue any sponsors of the groups in federal court.
Saudi Arabia has been lobbying hard against the legislation. The Saudi Embassy’s Twitter feed is a string of quotes from government officials, lawmakers and newspaper op-eds against the bill.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest maintained last Friday that the bill puts “our diplomats and service members at risk around the world.”
“Listen, the president has made a forceful case and I’ve made a forceful case that our deepest concern is not limited to the impact that this bill would have on our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Earnest said. “Our deepest concern is about the impact that this bill would have on our relationship with countries all around the world… there are irresponsible people all around the world who accuse the United States of being complicit in terrorism all the time.”
Today, after the Senate vote, Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One
that it was “the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983.”
The veto override was 97-1. The only senator to side with the White House was Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Earnest praised Reid’s “courage,” and added, “Ultimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today.”
The bill next goes to the House for override, where House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he believes there are the votes to overturn President Obama’s veto.
In Friday’s veto message, Obama said he has “deep sympathy” for the victims of terrorist attacks and their families, and said he’s “decimated” al-Qaeda’s leadership.
“Enacting JASTA into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. As drafted, JASTA would allow private litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil,” Obama wrote. “This legislation would permit litigation against countries that have neither been designated by the executive branch as state sponsors of terrorism nor taken direct actions in the United States to carry out an attack here.”
“The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why I am returning it without my approval.”
Obama said the bill “threatens to reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism, by taking such matters out of the hands of national security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts”; “would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests”; and “threatens to create complications in our relationships with even our closest partners.”
Schumer stressed that he and Cornyn “narrowed JASTA to strike the proper balance between our interests abroad and the rights of our citizens to obtain justice.”
“Overriding a veto is something I don’t take lightly, but it was impt that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice,” Schumer tweeted. “I hope the House will quickly follow suit on JASTA so that the 9/11 families & other victims can have the day in court they deserve.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), said he weighed Obama’s veto argument, but “the 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.”
“The 9/11 victims and their families deserve meaningful relief, and I cannot support putting obstacles in their way as they seek justice. On the contrary, I believe this legislation creates the kind of path to justice my constituents and fellow citizens are pursuing, and to which they are entitled,” Cardin said in a statement after casting his vote. “Those who commit or support terrorist acts in the United States should face the full range of consequences of our legal system.”
On the immunity concerns, Cardin stressed that Congress should “follow closely how the changes work in practice and how other countries respond to JASTA,” and work “to mitigate any risks to the United States by protecting our diplomats, troops, and assets, including through legislation if that is needed.”
Another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), said the bill “sends a strong message to the rest of the world that America will not tolerate those who support terrorism against our people.”
“President Obama was wrong to veto this reasonable measure, and I am pleased the Senate acted to override his veto and allow the victims of an act of international terrorism in the United States to sue any foreign government who supports an attack,” Isakson said.
“I believe that a strong U.S.-Saudi military partnership is essential to our efforts to address ongoing challenges in the Middle East, a region that remains closely tied to our security,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “This bill does not change that, but instead makes clear that those responsible for horrific crimes against our citizens will ultimately be held accountable under our justice system.”
This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. EST