President Obama vetoed legislation Friday that could allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over whether it supported some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, potentially triggering the first veto override of his presidency.
Obama's veto was the 12th in his eight years in office. But given the breadth of support for the bipartisan measure — it passed unanimously in both the House and Senate — the veto could be the first lawmakers are able to overcome with an override vote.
That step is not assured, though. The administration has begun courting lawmakers, particularly fellow Democrats, who may agree with the spirit of the legislation but could be swayed to Obama’s side by arguments about the potential geopolitical ramifications of the bill.
The legislation would revive a lawsuit brought by families of Sept. 11 victims against the Saudi government by clarifying a 1976 law governing the principle of sovereign immunity. The measure specifies that foreign governments could be held liable in American courts for terrorist attacks in the U.S.
The White House has warned that the legislation could prompt legal and economic retaliation from foreign governments. It has raised the specter of the U.S. government being sued in courts all over the world, and pointed to Saudi Arabia’s threat to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. debt and other assets, though the effectiveness of that has been called into question.
“Enactment … could encourage foreign governments to act reciprocally and allow their domestic courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or U.S. officials — including our men and women in uniform,” Obama said in a nearly 1,300-word veto message.
He said he had “deep sympathy” for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and said his administration was committed to their pursuit of justice.
But, he said, the legislation could harm U.S. counterterrorism efforts 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.”
The law would also likely further strain relations with Saudi Arabia, a critical Middle East partner with whom the U.S. is already on rocky ground.
For years, the nations have been bound together by U.S. dependence on Saudi oil and a shared suspicion of and isolation of Iran. Now, U.S. dependency on the Saudi oil reserves is on the wane, and Obama has shaken the foundations of the partnership by engaging in diplomatic talks with Iran that resulted in a deal to limit its nuclear program.
And though the Saudis have for decades counted on the U.S. to bolster stable regimes in the Arab world, the U.S. hasn’t followed the advice of Saudi kings in recent years, notably on Iraq and Egypt.
Obama is trying to sell his complicated argument against a more straightforward emotional plea by 9/11 victims’ families. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber and typically an ally of the White House, called Obama’s veto “a disappointing decision that will be swiftly and soundly overturned in Congress.”
But White House aides say lawmakers have been open to concerns raised in private conversations.
“It's politically inconvenient,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of the bill. “But when it comes to the stakes and the impact that this could have on our national security, the president's willing to take some political heat in order to try to do the right thing and stand up for a principle that has an impact on the safety and security and risk that's faced by our service members and diplomats around the world.”
The Senate will move to a potential override vote “as soon as practicable,” said a spokesman for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Congress’ first priority in the next week will be passing a new government funding measure before the current one expires Sept. 30. If lawmakers put off an override vote until after an extended campaign recess set to begin in October, it would offer the White House more time to make its case.
"It floated right through the Senate, it seemed like – why wouldn’t you want people to be able to sue? – and through the House. Now people are stopping and actually reading it," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip.
"There was always a thought this would never go anywhere. And it did. The administration takes it seriously, and I will, too," he added.
The victims’ relatives have lobbied aggressively for the proposal. Supporters of the legislation say it will help bring closure to the victims of the nation's deadliest attack by allowing them to prosecute even its potential government sponsors.
They say the sovereign immunity law had been previously interpreted to allow such cases to proceed until 2005, without the kind of repercussions the administration now warns about.
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of State and the junior senator from New York at the time of the attacks, would sign the legislation if she were president, her campaign said Friday, complicating White House efforts to win over Democrats to help sustain a veto.
“Secretary Clinton continues to support the efforts by Senator Schumer and his colleagues in Congress to secure the ability of 9/11 families and other victims of terror to hold accountable those responsible,” spokesman Jesse Lehrich said in a statement.
Republican nominee Donald Trump likewise said he would sign the legislation if president, while condemning Obama’s action.
“That President Obama would deny the parents, spouses and children of those we lost on that horrific day the chance to close this painful chapter in their lives is a disgrace,” he said.
The U.S. government does not hold Saudi leadership accountable for the attacks, and there there is no evidence in the 9/11 Commission report that the kingdom backed Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. But the panel did determine that some senior leaders supported extremist causes, and that monitoring all such funding remains elusive.
If a president vetoes a bill, it can still become law with an affirmative vote by two-thirds of both the House and Senate. In 2015, the Senate fell just short in an effort to bypass Obama and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, an early priority of the chamber's new Republican majority.
Even as McConnell indicated he believed there was still overwhelming support for the legislation, he helped lead opposition to another vote this week that would impact the U.S.-Saudi relationship: a resolution that aimed to block a proposed $1.15 billion arms deal with the Gulf power.
“It's important to the United States to maintain as good a relationship with Saudi Arabia as possible," McConnell said.
President George W. Bush's final two vetoes were each overridden by what was then a Democratic-led Congress in 2008, including a major agriculture bill and legislation to prevent reduced doctors' payments under Medicare.
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Christi Parsons contributed to this report.
For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.
3:15 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from Donald Trump.
2:30 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from Obama and reaction.
This story was originally published at 1:20 p.m.