An overwhelming majority in Congress on Wednesday overturned US President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow families of those killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role in the plot, the first successful override vote of his presidency.
Only one senator, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, siding with the president as 97 others voted Wednesday to override. In the House, the veto override was approved a few hours later, 348 to 77, the New York Times reported.
The measure would amend a 1976 law that granted other countries broad immunity from American lawsuits, allowing nations to be sued in federal court if they are found to have played any role in terrorist attacks that killed Americans on United States soil.
The bipartisan vote was a rebuke of the President who had argued the Justice for State Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) could open the US government to lawsuits for the actions of military service members and diplomats, CNNMoney reported.
Obama also warned it could damage America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, a troubled but key Middle East ally, and other allies who might be accused of terrorism.
But the powerful emotional appeal of providing 9/11 families a legal avenue to pursue justice proved too strong and carried the day.
“The victims of 9/11 have fought for 15 long years to make sure that those responsible for the senseless murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children, and injuries to thousands others, are held accountable. JASTA becoming law is a tremendous victory toward that effort,” CNNMoney quoted Terry Strada, National Chair of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism as saying.
“We rejoice in this triumph and look forward to our day in court and a time when we may finally get more answers regarding who was truly behind the attacks.”
The President spoke by phone to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Reid this week to urge them to sustain his veto. In a follow up letter on Tuesday, Obama said he was “firmly committed” to assisting the 9/11 families but that JASTA was the wrong approach.
“Enacting JASTA into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorists attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. Doing so would instead threaten to erode sovereign principles that protect the United States, including our US Armed Forces and other officials, overseas,” Obama wrote.
“That is why I vetoed the bill and why I believe you should vote to sustain the veto.”
But sponsors of the measure said it was more important to give the 9/11 families their day in court than to worry about the fallout with Saudi Arabia, which they argued wouldn’t have anything to worry about if it was not connected to the terror plot.
“How can anyone look at the families in the eye and tell them that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to seek justice against a foreign government responsible for the death of their loved one,” asked Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chief Republican sponsor of the bill.
“At the end of the day, this vote is about doing what’s right for the American people,” CNNMoney quoted him as saying.
“The bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker because it would allow the victims of the 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice finally giving them the legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of a terrorist act that took the lives of their loved ones,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the chief Democratic sponsor.