Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Top Republicans Seek Delay in Veto Override of 9/11 Bill

  • Corker, Graham at odds with Cornyn over veto override timing
  • Senators cite foreign policy ramifications of legislation

Two leading Republican voices on national security -- Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham -- want to postpone a vote on whether to override President Barack Obama’s promised veto of legislation to let families of 9/11 terrorist attack victims sue Saudi Arabia.

The delay would give senators more time to consider the likelihood its enactment would “backfire on us” because “once we create the opportunity for U.S. citizens to sue another government we also open the door for the same thing to happen to us,” said Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Corker and Graham are raising concerns about the foreign policy ramifications of the legislation even though it sailed through both chambers and was sent to the president a day after the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest has said Obama will reject the legislation, though he hasn’t announced the timing of the planned veto.

Corker said in an interview that he hopes “the veto will come back after we are gone” so the Senate doesn’t vote on overriding it until after “a couple-months cooling period takes place.” The Senate could leave town by the end of next week if it completes work on a stopgap spending bill to fund the government when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Corker and Graham are at odds with many of their colleagues in both parties including Republican Whip John Cornyn, who has pressed for a pre-election vote. A co-sponsor of the bill, Cornyn challenged Obama in a floor speech not to “leave the families dangling” and promptly issue a veto to enable a vote before Congress adjourns this month to go home and campaign.

Corker said a delay may allow the Senate to consider changing the bill. “Having some time go by could end up causing some constructive things to occur,” the Tennessee Republican said. “Might not, but I’m certain that by next Friday that won’t happen."

South Carolina’s Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who also heads the Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which writes the spending bill for U.S. embassies and diplomatic programs, said he wants to “buy some time here” to “make the bill more palatable but also be in the interest of the families."

Graham said that the legislation threatens U.S. relations “The Saudis let me know in no uncertain terms that they see this bill as a hostile act,” he said. “I want to make sure that the families are taken care of here, but I have come to the conclusion that the person to blame for 9/11 is bin Laden.”

The Saudis “see this as a nightmare for them that they will be sued,” he said, adding that he was trying to work with the White House to find a provision that would be acceptable to Cornyn and other backers of the bill such as New York Democrat Charles Schumer.

Another leading voice on national security, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who is facing a tough re-election fight in Arizona, refused to talk about the legislation.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens. Long-classified portions of a congressional inquiry into the attacks that were released in July found that the hijackers may have had assistance from some Saudis connected to the kingdom’s government. The Saudi government has denied culpability.

The Senate passed the measure on a voice vote in May and the House followed suit Sept. 9, also by voice vote. The measure was presented to Obama for his signature on Sept. 12. Under the Constitution, the president has 10 days -- not counting Sundays -- to veto legislation or it becomes law. Lawmakers have until the end of the 114th Congress to take up the veto override.

The legislation, S. 2040, would create an exception to a 1976 law that immunizes foreign governments from lawsuits in U.S. courts, to allow suits alleging that a nation sponsored terrorist act on U.S. soil.

BGOV Bill Summary: S. 2040, Suing State Sponsors of Terror

If the vote were held this month, Obama could suffer the first veto override of his presidency. An override requires the votes of two-thirds of the Senate and House. That means 34 of the 100 senators would have to vote with Obama to sustain the veto if all were present and voting that day.

Democrats, mindful of the emotional appeal of the bill in an election year, said preventing a veto override is difficult.

“It was passed by voice vote in both chambers,” Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois told reporters. “We are all on the record supporting it so, at this point, I think it’s a heavy lift for the president to have his veto sustained."

Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he wants to see Obama’s veto message before making up his mind. With “overwhelming support” for the legislation, Obama should address whether “there is an avenue for effective relief for those who are victimized by the terrorist attack and what are the consequences of this legislation."

“I hope the president’s message will deal with both of those issues," he said.
Earnest told reporters today that the White House understands the political challenge it faces in persuading lawmakers to uphold the veto. "You don’t have to have an advanced degree in math" to know that a veto override is possible, he said.

In the House, “many of us want to hear what the administration has to say, so I don’t know where a vote count would be on a veto override,” California Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters.

“It’s a hard bill to oppose” because the victims are so sympathetic, and “allowing people to seek redress” is “a bedrock principle of tort system.”

Still, Schiff said he’d like to change the bill to apply only to “the situation vis a vis 9-11 and Saudi Arabia.”

Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, said she was surprised that there are discussions about changing the bill. She said she collaborated with Corker and Graham during “painstaking rewrites” before the Senate passed the legislation.

Since the president has made up his mind, he should move promptly, Breitweiser said in a telephone interview. “Why is he waiting? Is he using it as a political football?”

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