Democrats are starting to show cracks in their support for legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia — suggesting White House opposition to the bill may be resonating with lawmakers preparing for the first veto override vote of Barack Obama’s presidency.
But to sustain his expected veto, Obama will need to persuade 34 senators to change course and oppose the bill — a very difficult task. The legislation sailed through both chambers with no opposition. And the White House now has scant time to make its case to Capitol Hill, with a veto override vote in the Senate expected this month.
Still, there are glimmers of hope for the administration. Key lawmakers are now making it clear they remain undecided on overriding Obama’s presumed veto — a notable departure from the overwhelming show of support behind the legislation when it unanimously passed both chambers earlier this year.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, indicated this week that she was rethinking her support for the Saudi Arabia legislation amid renewed arguments against the measure from the Obama administration.
“I do have some second thoughts with respect to that,” Feinstein said. “I think it could bring on a whole host of unintended consequences.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said Tuesday that “this is not a bill without complex ramifications” and he wanted to see Obama’s formal veto and his rationale for opposing the legislation before making up his mind on overriding it.
“I think it would be incorrect for any member to think this is a very simple issue, that it may not have ramifications for the United States in other venues around the world,” Hoyer said. “Having said that, I will reiterate, I share and there is great sympathy among the Senate, the House, bipartisan, to assure that the American families who have suffered great grief and loss have an avenue to address their grievances.”
But their public trepidation is going up against relentless lobbying from family members of the Sept. 11 victims, who have proved to be a powerful force. When Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina began expressing their qualms with the legislation and suggesting that a veto override should be held off until the end of the year, the families fired back, saying the Republicans are asking “far more than the families and survivors should ever be asked to accept.”
That ferocious push continued into Tuesday, as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) met privately with 9/11 families in his office and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) held a news conference outside the Capitol with victims of the terrorist attacks.
Another enemy working against the White House is simple: time.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he plans to hold the override vote before senators leave Washington to campaign, dramatically cutting down the time the White House has to coax enough senators to sustain Obama’s expected rejection of the 9/11 legislation. McConnell said he assumed the veto will be overridden.
The president has yet to formally issue a veto, but he is required to do so by Friday. Because the legislation originated from the Senate, that chamber will move first on an override.
Speaking to reporters in New York, where Obama was attending the U.N. General Assembly, White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that the administration faces a “steep hill” in addressing their own concerns about the 9/11 bill. Yet Earnest suggested that more lawmakers are on their side than public comments would indicate.
“As we’ve made this case, members of Congress in both parties have indicated that they are open to the concerns that we’ve expressed. In many cases, they share them,” Earnest said. “And the real question for members of Congress will be whether or not they’re prepared to cast a vote that is consistent with the views and feelings that they expressed in private.”
The White House has repeatedly listed several concerns with the measure, including its view that the 9/11 bill could open up U.S. officials to legal retaliation in foreign courts. Earnest has also argued that the legislation could lead to different judges in different courtrooms coming up with varying terror designations about the same country.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he still had not decided whether he would support overriding Obama’s presumed veto.
“I certainly agree with the premise” of the bill, Durbin said. But “some colleagues, in this case Graham and Corker have raised questions about whether or not there ought to be some modifications. I’ve talked with Sen. [Chuck] Schumer, there already have been modifications made.”
The legislation, formally known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act to prevent countries involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from invoking sovereign immunity, a legal principle that shields foreign nations from legal action. That would pave the way for 9/11 families to pursue lawsuits related to the attacks.
It’s not a new measure in Capitol Hill; it cleared the Senate last Congress and then resurfaced in the chamber earlier this year. This time, proponents of the legislation note that changes have already been made to the legislation to accommodate concerns from the Obama administration, and in their view, there’s little room left for a compromise.
Still, other influential Democrats show signs of taking pause.
“I certainly don’t want to shield those who are supporting terrorism,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “On the other hand, I understand the importance of sovereign immunity as it relates to international activities. So I’d like to understand the president’s concerns, whether there are alternative ways to handle this before I make a judgment.”
Late Tuesday, Graham said he has been in touch with the White House and Saudi officials but said he was pessimistic on any prospects to come up with revisions to satisfy both the victims’ families, as well as ease the Obama administration’s diplomatic concerns.
“It’s either/or politics now,” Graham said. “You’re either for 9/11 families or you’re for Saudi Arabia. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Other key Republicans also stressed they were also undecided.
“I’m willing to hear [the White House’s] concerns,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, which crafted the bill.
The two top senators on the Judiciary Committee — Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Patrick Leahy of Vermont — both said they firmly backed the legislation, which emerged from their committee earlier this year before passing the full Senate in May.
“It should be 100-0, but I don’t expect that it will be,” Grassley said of a vote to override a veto of the 9/11 bill. “If people don’t want to override the veto, they should’ve expressed their opposition earlier.”