WASHINGTON ― In a stinging blow to President Barack Obama, the Senate voted Wednesday to override his veto of a bill to let 9/11 victims sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the terrorist attacks.
It’s the first time a chamber of Congress has had the votes to overrule Obama on a veto. It’s also the result of some unusual alliances: Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who is on track to become the next Democratic leader, led the effort against the president alongside Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a conservative member of Republican leadership.
“This is pretty much close to a miraculous occurrence,” Cornyn said before the vote. “All of us have come together and agreed this is the appropriate and right thing to do.”
It takes two-thirds of the Senate to override a veto. Party leaders got well above that level. The final tally was 97-1. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was the lone opposition. Two senators didn’t vote at all: Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was Clinton’s runner-up in the presidential race.
A Kaine spokesman later told HuffPost that the senator was traveling during the vote, but had he been there, he would have voted to sustain the veto. That puts him on the same page as Clinton, who has said she backs the bill.
The House voted later on Wednesday to override the veto, causing the bill to become law.
The bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, prevents Saudi Arabia and other countries with alleged ties to terrorist groups from invoking their legal immunity in U.S. courts. It overrides the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which grants immunity to countries that aren’t designated state sponsors of terrorism.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, but the Saudi government denies any role in the attacks and multiple U.S. government investigations have cleared it of blame.
“I deeply respect the president and the reasons he has given for vetoing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said ahead of the vote. “But I urge my colleagues to move swiftly and soundly to reverse this veto so that these families can have their day in court.”
The White House has fought against the bill for months, to no avail. Administration officials warn that it would put Americans overseas at legal risk and leave the United States vulnerable to bogus lawsuits ― and hefty bills ― in court systems around the world. The European Union and former top executive branch officials have urged Obama to stop it, in the name of protecting sovereign immunity. Saudi Arabia has threatened to retaliate by selling off hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets.
But those arguments didn’t sway lawmakers, who say the White House’s case is overblown. The bill originally passed the House and Senate without a single “no” vote.
“The bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker because it would allow the victims of 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice,” Schumer said Wednesday. “Courts in New York have dismissed their claims against foreign entities alleged to have helped in the 9/11 attacks. They are following an incorrect reading of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.”
Obama vetoed the bill last week and issued a lengthy statement with it. In sum, he said he sympathizes with 9/11 victims and has expanded efforts to help them, but that JASTA undermines “core U.S. interests.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest last week downplayed the significance of Obama getting such a strong rebuke from Congress, including from Democratic leaders.
“The president is not particularly concerned about that,” Earnest said in his Friday briefing. “This president has gone longer in his tenure in the White House than just about any other president in modern history before facing the prospect of having his veto overridden.”
This post has been updated to note that two senators did not vote but Kaine would have voted to sustain the veto. Also, the House voted to override the veto later on Wednesday.