A day after veto override, US Congress has second thoughts and may alter 9/11 bill
Less than a day after Congress overrode US President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would let 9/11 victims’ families sue Saudi Arabia, top Republican leaders said they might need to fix the new law to protect US national security interests.
Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both acknowledged Thursday that the bill, which narrows a foreign nation’s immunity from legal challenge, could backfire by exposing the United States to retaliatory lawsuits by foreign victims of terrorism.
“There may be some work to be done,” Ryan told reporters.
The White House had warned as much in an unsuccessful last-minute barrage by the Defence Secretary, CIA director and other top national security officials to try to stop the override. All wrote weighty letters to Congress voicing their concerns about the potential harm, leading some lawmakers to publicly express reservations ahead of this week’s vote. But most went ahead and supported the override anyway.
Republicans in Congress were eager to deliver a rebuke to the White House with their first-ever win in a veto showdown against Obama. The 9/11 bill also offered a popular piece of bipartisan legislation, despite heavy lobbying from the Saudi Arabian government, a key U.S. ally.
Ryan said lawmakers were focused on giving 9/11 families “their day in court.” However, now the speaker is worried that other countries will retaliate — as the White House had warned — by adjusting their own laws to target the United States and its military personnel with lawsuits.
“I would like to think there may be some work to be done to protect our service members overseas from any kind of — any kind of legal ensnarements that could occur,” Ryan said. “I’d like to think that there’s a way we could fix so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims.”
McConnell also suggested changes to the law are “worth further discussing.”
The White House spared no criticism of Congress for failing to heed the warnings and do its homework before voting.
“What’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress: Ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
The victims’ families had celebrated the long-fought outcome of Wednesday’s vote, having pressed for a decade for the ability to bring their case to court.
While 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has not been expressly implicated in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City, the Pentagon and the downing of Flight 93 over Pennsylvania.
Few expected the legislation to pass. It was hastily approved by only voice votes — one just before the 15th anniversary of the 2001 attacks. Obama swiftly vetoed it, setting up the showdown.
What happens next remains uncertain. The bill’s main author, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, said Thursday he was willing to consider changes, but nothing that would impede the families from proceeding with the legal action.