For the first time during his time in office, Congress overrode a veto by President Barack Obama on Monday, just four months before he leaves office.
NPR reports that the House voted 348-77 and the Senate 97-1, well over the two-thirds majority needed to overcome the president’s objection to a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for aiding or financing the attacks. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was the only no vote, and neither Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) nor Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) participated in the vote. In the House, 59 Democrats and 18 Republicans voted against the veto, according to NBC News.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement, “Overriding a presidential veto is something we don't 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.”
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would allow any U.S. citizen who claims that a country financed or supported a terrorist attack on U.S. soil to sue that country.
Currently, under the principle of sovereign immunity, foreign governments are immune from lawsuits in the courts of other countries. The passage of JASTA creates an exception to that rule.
Reuters reports that families of 9/11 victims have been pushing for this legislation for the 15 years since the attacks. The veto override and inevitable passage of JASTA means that they will now be able to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.
Opponents of the bill fear that its passage will cause other countries to reciprocate and enact laws that expose U.S. government officials, members of the military and corporations to lawsuits brought by foreign countries.
CIA Director John Brennan released the following statement opposing the bill, according to NBC News:
The most damaging consequence would be for those U.S. Government officials who dutifully work overseas on behalf of our country. The principle of sovereign immunity protects US officials every day, and is rooted in reciprocity. If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries, we place our own nation's officials in danger. No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States—and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA.
Supporters of the bill don’t think it will have a negative impact on sovereign immunity; they argue that ultimately it is just guaranteeing victims their day in court.
"The issue is fundamentally about … whether someone would have the opportunity to raise their concerns in the judicial system. It's not a judgment about how a case would come out," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, NPR reports. "It seems to me that it is appropriate—particularly in light of the families—that they should have a chance to raise their concerns in court.”
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