Obama Will Veto Saudi 9/11 Legislation, Inviting an Override

  • Congress sent the bill to the president without opposition
  • White House says legislation would set dangerous precedent

President Barack Obama will veto legislation that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, a measure vehemently opposed by the U.S. ally, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday.

The measure passed both the House and Senate unopposed by voice votes, with the House acting on Friday to send the bill to Obama just ahead of the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The lack of public opposition suggests Congress could override Obama’s veto for the first time in his presidency and make the measure law.

"The president does intend to veto this legislation," Earnest told reporters on Monday. The administration had opposed the legislation, arguing it would set an international precedent that would expose the U.S. government and American soldiers to legal jeopardy in foreign courts.

"The president will continue to explain his opposition to this legislation, and will do that until Congress ultimately makes its decision about whether or not to override his veto," Earnest said.

The bill "exposes the United States" and its diplomats, and even corporate executives, to significant risk, Earnest added.

Sovereign Immunity

The legislation would carve out an exception to sovereign immunity -- the legal doctrine that protects foreign governments from lawsuits -- if a plaintiff claims to have suffered injury in the U.S. from state-sponsored terrorism.

Earnest acknowledged it’s "possible" the veto will anger or disappoint families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. "But the president’s words and deeds show he has these families’ best interests in mind," he said, citing Obama’s support for health care for emergency workers sickened at the site of the World Trade Center and approval of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated 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 Saudis connected to their government. The Saudi government has denied culpability.

Earnest also argued that the measure would risk sowing confusion by allowing individual courts to determine which countries sponsor terrorism; the government already has a formal system in place for making such a designation.

"There is currently a list of countries that are state sponsors of terrorism -- it’s something that is made public by the federal government, and the impact is serious," Earnest said.

Selling Assets

Saudi officials have said enactment of the law could lead them to sell off the kingdom’s U.S. Treasury debt and other American assets, which totaled $750 billion, the officials told U.S. lawmakers and others in the government, according to the New York Times. The Saudi government held $117 billion in U.S. Treasury debt in March, according to Treasury figures obtained by Bloomberg. The kingdom may have additional holdings not included in the data on deposit with the New York Federal Reserve Bank, in entities in third countries, or through positions in derivatives.

Despite the legislation passing Congress unopposed, the administration may be able to build support to avert an override of Obama’s veto, particularly if the White House can delay that vote until after the November election. Passing the bill by voice vote means there is no record of individual lawmakers’ positions on the measure. Overriding a veto requires a recorded vote in support from two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber.

Obama has served the longest period without a veto override of any president in more than a century.

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