Congress rejects Obama veto on 9/11 bill; first override of his presidency

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SHAFAQNA – The House and Senate Wednesday voted to reject President Obama’s veto of legislation allowing lawsuits against foreign sponsors of terrorism in the first successful override of a presidential veto since Obama took office.

The president had vetoed the legislation Friday because he said the bill — known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA — would infringe on the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy. It was the 12th veto of his presidency.

But after an intense, lengthy push by 9/11 survivors and families of victims who want to sue Saudi Arabia based on claims the country played a role in the 2001 terror attack, even Obama’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill voted to override his veto.

The House voted 348-77, well above the two-thirds majority needed. The final vote tally in the Senate was 97-1. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-.Nev., cast the sole vote against override.

“In our polarized politics of today, this is pretty much close to a miraculous occurrence,” said  Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have agreed, he said, that the bill “gives the victims of the terrorist attack on our own soil an opportunity to seek the justice they deserve.”.

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he shared some of Obama’s concerns but said the victims’ rights outweighed them.

“We cannot in good conscience close the courthouse door to those families who have suffered unimaginable losses,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest decried the override as the “single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983.”

“Ultimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today,” he said, adding that Reid showed “courage” in opposing it.

The measure was approved in the House by voice vote earlier this month and sailed through the Senate by unanimous consent in May. In recent weeks, however, there had been some pushback against the bill, which would create an exception to sovereign immunity, the doctrine that holds one country can’t be sued in another country’s courts.

Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and former U.S. AttorneyMichael Mukasey, both of whom served under President George W. Bush, warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month that the legislation could open Americans to such suits abroad.

“An errant drone strike that kills non-combatants in Afghanistan could easily trigger lawsuits demanding that U.S. military or intelligence personnel be hauled into foreign courts,” they wrote.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, and committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, reached out to colleagues in recent days asking them to reconsider support for the bill. Thornberry sent them a letter saying that in addition to putting Americans abroad in legal jeopardy, the move undermines the United States’ reliability as an ally.

“We must work with other nations, even imperfect ones,” he wrote. “Requiring their government officials to participate in and give testimony in lawsuits — even when nothing has been proven — will create tensions and lead to less cooperation. I believe the net result will harm our security.

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