President Obama on Friday is expected to announce his veto of legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to the terrorists who carried out the attacks.
Congressional leaders plan to hold override votes in the coming days and supporters of the legislation say they are confident they can succeed in overturning the president’s action.
The Obama administration has until midnight Friday to reject the measure, or it automatically becomes law.
The legislation would allow U.S. courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in cases involving terrorism on U.S. soil. The administration contends that this would break a longstanding understanding that protected sovereign nations from these types of legal threats. The result, according to the White House, is that American officials could be sued in foreign courts over U.S. military or diplomatic actions abroad.
The bill passed the House and Senate without any dissents, but since that time several lawmakers have expressed misgivings with the measure while echoing the concerns voiced by the White House.
On Thursday, lawmakers grilled members of the administration over what the repercussions would be if the bill becomes law.
“Do you have any concerns about how this will affect the troops or our liability abroad?” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “We need to make a decision probably next week, and I want to understand the full implications of this.”
Carter emphasized the administration’s concern that “were another country to behave reciprocally” by passing a similar law, “this could be a problem for our service members.”
Various national security experts and even the European Union’s delegation to the United States have weighed in with similar warnings in the last several days.
But congressional leaders are still confident the override votes will be successful. It would be the first time during Obama’s presidency that Congress has overridden a veto.
Members are wary of voting against the wishes of 9/11 victims’ families, who insist that the legislation is necessary for them to stand a chance of suing Saudi Arabia over the alleged material support members of the Saudi government provided the attackers.
Saudi Arabia has strenuously argued that it had nothing to do with the attacks, and the 9/11 Commission also said it did not find a connection.
“Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization,” the commission’s report reads. Recently declassified pages from a 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks shed no new light on the issue.
But lawmakers who support the legislation say that if Saudi Arabia did nothing wrong, it should have nothing to fear in this law.
Still, members of both parties called for Congress to delay its planned override vote so that lawmakers could try to renegotiate the bill with the White House.
“I hope that it can be put off, and cooler heads will prevail,” the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), said this week, calling efforts to move ahead with the bill in its current form “a mistake.”
The scope of the legislation was already narrowed once this year to respond to concerns raised by the administration and members of Congress.
Congressional leaders have indicated they are not interested in extending this process any longer, and expect to hold override votes soon after Obama issues his anticipated veto.
“JASTA’s a fait accompli if it happens over the next week,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has voiced concerns about the legislation, said Tuesday using the acronym for the bill. “Unless there are 34 people willing to fall on their swords over this, it’s probably not worth falling on your sword over.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.