Congress on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to override President Obamaâs veto of legislation that would allowÂ 9/11 victimsâ families to sue the Saudi Arabian governmentÂ over its alleged support for the terrorists who carried out the attacks.
It is the first override of Obamaâs presidency.
The votes in the House and Senate amounted to a sweeping, bipartisan rejection of pleas from the White HouseÂ to back the president, with administration officials arguing the legislation poses a national security threat by exposing U.S. officials to similar lawsuits abroad.
âOverriding a presidential veto is something we donât take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts,â Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who co-authored the bill with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), said in a statement.
Some members of Congress in recent days expressed misgivings about the bill and signaled a willingness consider changes, but that angst did little to alter the vote tallies in either chamber.
The Senate vote was 97 to 1 and the House tally was 348Â to 77.
Traveling aboard Air Force One Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the vote âthe single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983,â when Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Reaganâs veto of an Oregon land transfer bill.
âUltimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today,â Earnest said, noting that at least one GOP senator said someÂ of his colleaguesÂ had failed to read the bill before voting on it initially.Â âTo have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is in itself embarrassing.â
Obama, speaking at a CNN town hall with members of the military in Fort Lee, Va., later said he considered the override âa mistakeâ but added, âI understand why it happened. All of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.â
âI wish Congress would have done whatâs hard,â he said. âMy job as commander-in-chief is to make sure we are looking ahead on how this will impact our overall mission.â
The billÂ would allow courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in situations involving acts of terrorism on U.S. soil.
Obamaâs Democratic allies on Capitol Hill provided scant support for the presidentâs position withÂ Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) casting the lone vote to sustain the veto after receiving a letter from the presidentÂ arguing the consequences of an override could be âdevastating.â
In the letter, which Obama sent Tuesday to both Reid and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the president said that he was âfully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11â³ but the legislation would put military and other U.S. officials overseas at risk. The billâs enactment, he warned, âwould neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of of our response to such attacks.â
Reid voted against the overrideÂ despite telling reporters earlier this month that âIÂ support that legislationâ and Schumerâs efforts.
âHeâs always had the presidentâs back,â said Reid spokesmanÂ Adam Jentleson.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the president called the majority leader after the override vote was scheduled, but neither the conservation nor the letter did anythingÂ to change his mind.
In the House, 59Â Democrats and 18Â Republicans voted to back the presidentâs position.
The sharp rebuke of the presidentâs veto is a sign that Saudi Arabiaâs fortunes are waning on Capitol Hill. The Saudi government has denied it had any ties to the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks and has lobbied fiercely against the bill. But victimsâ families have pushed for the legislation so they can press their case in courts, and lawmakers who support the measure argue Saudi Arabia should not be concerned if it did nothing wrong.
Last week,Â Â the Senate voted on a resolution to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it stops targeting civilians in Yemen.
âThis is not a time when U.S.-Saudi relations have much popular support on either side,â said F. Gregory Gause,Â head of theÂ international affairs department atÂ Texas A&M UniversityâsÂ Bush School of Government and Public Service. Just as the Saudis think the administration has tilted too closely to Iran, he said, many U.S. politicians blame Saudi Arabia for the globe spread of Sunni extremism. âI think thatâs really simplistic.â
Both chambers passed the 9/11 legislationÂ without dissent earlier this year. But now, severalÂ lawmakersÂ are echoing the White House argumentÂ that the legislation could set a dangerous precedent, inviting other nations to respond by suingÂ American diplomats, military personnel and other officials in foreign courts.
Critics of the bill are now focusing on how to scale back the measure once itÂ becomes law.Â Approximately 20 senators have signed a letter expressing their intention to return to the issue during the lame duck session if the new law generates negative consequences.
âWe see the writing on the wall: the override is going to occur,â said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been leading efforts to negotiate a narrower alternative, before the vote.
Corker is one of several members who argue the bill is so broad that it could expose the United States to retaliation in foreign courts.
He complained that if the bill becomes law âwhat you really do is you end up exporting your foreign policy to trial lawyers,â addingÂ that U.S. personnel might find themselves dragged into lawsuits abroad over American drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even its support for Israel.
Yet he and otherÂ senators who expressed similar concernsÂ elected, in the end, to vote for the override.
Sen. Angus King (I-Me.) said he voted for the override because âconcrete benefitâ for the 9/11 victimsâ families outweighed âspeculative detrimentâ to American officials and foreign relations.
In a letter Monday to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned that allowing the bill to become law risked âdamaging our close and effective cooperation with other countriesâ and âcould ultimately have a chilling effect on our own counter-terrorism efforts.â
Thornberry and Smith both circulated letters among members in the last few days, urging them to vote against overriding the veto.
CIA Director John O. Brennan also warned of the 9/11 billâs âgrave implications for the national security of the United Statesâ in a statement Wednesday.
CriticsÂ guessed their colleagues might be more open to scaling back the measureÂ after observing any international âblowbackâ once it becomes law. Corker said he is working with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) â who also supported the override Wednesday â in the hopes that âduring the lame duck, maybe thereâs a way to be successful in tightening this up.â
One alternative lawmakers have discussed is limitingÂ the measure to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as a way of satisfying the demands of the 9/11 victimsâ families without opening the United States to continuing diplomatic and legal problems.
Supporters have not warmed to any of the proposals critics are floating andÂ Cornyn dismissed the idea Congress will revisit the legislation later this year.
âAs far as Iâm concerned, this bill is a done deal,â Cornyn said. âObviously any senator or group of senators can offer any additional legislation they want, and weâll take it up in due course.â
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that it could take time to grasp the billâs full implications, and there may be âsome time to tweak the law before some of the most damaging consequences become clear.â
âBut the biggest issue is that it opens up government agencies to court-ordered discovery,â Alterman said, adding that the federal government could face lawsuits from those who have been victims of drone strikes and other American military activities. âItâs not limited to Saudi Arabia, and itâs likely to have a much larger impact on the U.S. government than the Saudi government, because the U.S. government takes rules very seriously.â
While White House staffers have reached out to certain members of Congress, Obama didÂ not launch an all-out lobbying push to pull members away from this bill.
âI know of no counting or anything theyâve asked me to do on that,â House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday. Pelosi intends to vote to override Obamaâs veto.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.