In a stunning first, Congress overrides Obama veto on 9/11 bill

“I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983.”

Then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), joined by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), speaks to reporters after a Republican caucus meeting, May 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo
Then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), joined by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), speaks to reporters after a Republican caucus meeting, May 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo

The U.S. Congress voted Wednesday to override President Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to circumvent foreign immunity claims and sue Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), was the only dissenting vote in the Senate, with 97 other Senators voting to override Obama’s veto. A few hours later, the House of Representatives also voted 348–77 to override the veto. This marks the first time during Obama’s presidency that Congress has overridden his veto.

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The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), sponsored by Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), was passed by Congress earlier this month. According to The Hill, the bill “would create an exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, allowing the victims of terrorism to sue foreign sponsors of attacks on U.S. soil.”

But the White House announced Obama’s intention to veto the legislation back in April, due to concerns that it could hurt Americans abroad if other countries pass similar laws.

The White House has already expressed its disappointment in the Senate’s vote on Wednesday.

“I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest shortly after the vote.

As ThinkProgress’ Justin Salhani has previously reported, this bill could set a dangerous precedent.

By opening up the prospect of victims suing governments (or states), the United States could be opening itself up to law suits from individuals who feel that the country has committed crimes in their nation — like victims of drones in Pakistan, or civilians killed by the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition in Yemen.

Obama sent a letter to members of Congress last week, expressing his concerns. “The consequences of JASTA could be devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members — and there is no doubt that the consequences could be equally significant for our foreign affairs and intelligence communities,” he wrote.

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The House has yet to vote on whether to override Obama’s veto, but many members have already expressed their support for JASTA, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).

The European Union said it opposed JASTA last week, citing concerns of “possible reciprocity from others.”

Obama has only vetoed 12 bills during his presidency, including JASTA. Congress has not succeeded in overriding any.

Saudi Arabia has been facing increased pressure from Western politicians and human rights organizations in recent months, especially due to the war crimes the Saudi-led coalition has committed in Yemen. Last week, a bipartisan bill in the Senate seeking to block the U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia was voted on, but failed to receive enough votes.

This piece has been updated to reflect the vote in the House of Representatives, which took place after publication.