Congress’s Retreat on 9/11 Saudi Bill Shows Fear of BacklashBy , , and
After rushing override, Ryan and McConnell consider changes
Neither party wanted to take tough vote against families
To Republicans in the U.S. Congress, a bill letting Sept. 11 victims’ families sue the Saudi government was just the sort of legal remedy -- and feel-good campaign gesture -- to show they’re tough on terrorism.
So they rushed the law through over the objections of the White House, with one top Republican posting a photo of himself signing the bill on Facebook. Then they hurried to override the president’s veto -- with the help of all but one Senate Democrat.
Not 24 hours later, Republicans were backpedaling. Some fretted that the law invited retaliation against U.S. soldiers, the exact point the White House had been making for months. Others worried it would disrupt the U.S.’s delicate, decades-long embrace of the oil-rich Saudi kingdom.
The top two Republicans in Congress say they’re open to changing the legislation. But with lawmakers going home for a six-week recess, any modifications are on hold. The White House is accusing lawmakers of bungling the bill to score political points.
So how did Congress get itself into this?
Misjudging the House
Interviews with Democrats and Republicans show that both lawmakers and the White House made a key miscalculation: that the U.S. House of Representatives would sit on the bill, making passage impossible. That gave the Senate license to pass the measure in May without the expectation it would become law.
And, one senior Democratic aide said, it appeared to cause the White House not to mount a full-court press against the bill, beyond its frequent criticism during the daily press briefing.
“I wish we had all focused on this earlier,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters this week. He said he regrets that he didn’t try harder to block its passage without more study and changes. But “the same difficulties would have presented themselves,” he said.
“Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were but nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Thursday, saying it was worth discussing possible fixes after the elections.
“I wish the president -- I hate to blame everything on him and I don’t, but it would have been helpful if we had a discussion on this much earlier than last week,” he added.
The White House, which labeled the Senate’s 97-1 override vote as the most embarrassing action of that chamber in decades, scoffed at the criticism.
“Ignorance is not a defense,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday, accusing Congress of developing “rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.”
The bill itself had been kicking around for several years, pushed by two powerful senators -- John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, and Chuck Schumer of New York, anointed earlier this year as the next Democratic leader.
The White House quietly tried to put the brakes on the bill, according to a senior Democratic aide, but Schumer and Cornyn managed to persuade senators to drop their opposition, in part by adding a provision allowing a stay on lawsuits if the administration attests that the affected country is negotiating a settlement in good faith.
A senior Republican aide said that both Corker and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham lifted holds they had placed on the bill after the tweaks, only to later have second thoughts.
So despite warnings from Saudi Arabia that the bill would damage relations with the kingdom, senators suddenly passed it in May by a voice vote, before the White House had even issued a formal veto threat.
The minor changes didn’t satisfy the White House, which warned the measure could still put U.S. soldiers, diplomats and spies at risk.
Sept. 11 Anniversary
House leaders decided to get the bill on the floor two days ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Right before that vote, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and other House members held a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol to mark the occasion.
“I don’t think it was a political vote on the part of anybody,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. But, she added, “If you’re saying the timing of when it was brought up was political, well, that I don’t know.”
The House sent the bill to the president’s desk without opposition.
When President Barack Obama vetoed the measure, he issued a detailed lengthy explanation, warning that allowing such lawsuits against foreign governments “based solely upon allegations by private litigants” may “lead to suits against the United States or U.S. officials for actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training,” even if the lawsuits are “without merit."
But the White House still didn’t mount an all-out offensive on Capitol Hill.
Corker complained at the start of a hearing Thursday that the White House didn’t respond to an effort he made with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland -- the top Democrat on the committee -- to get a meeting this week on the bill.
“I know Ben and I were trying to set up a meeting to try and deal with the issue of Jasta, to try to come to some other option that might create an outlet for the victims of 9/11 and yet not undermine some of our sovereign immunity issues,” he said, using an acronym for the bill.
Corker said he talked to Secretary of State John Kerry twice, “and we agreed the best way to resolve this was to have a meeting” -- a meeting with Schumer, Cornyn, Cardin, and himself, along with Senate Minority Harry Reid of Nevada and McConnell.
“Secretary Kerry couldn’t even get the White House to call me,” Corker said.
“They wouldn’t even sit down to meet with the secretary of state and us to try to create a solution to a problem that they felt was real,” said Corker.
White House Pushback
The White House didn’t confirm that Corker had requested the meeting, or explain why the administration would be unwilling to convene such a gathering. But Earnest on Thursday said Corker needed to “get his story straight.”
“For a number of days, Senator Corker was suggesting that he had never heard from anybody in the administration,” Earnest said. “That clearly is not true, I guess now by his admission.”
All the finger-pointing at the White House by Congress came after lawmakers repeatedly pushed the bill forward.
Corker and Graham last week told reporters they would prefer the override vote to happen after the elections and talked of narrowing the bill further, but neither objected when McConnell went to the floor Monday to ask for -- and receive -- unanimous consent to hold the vote Wednesday.
Even though the Saudis waged a high-profile lobbying campaign, including having several chief executive officers of large companies call senators, Saudi influence on Capitol Hill isn’t what it was a decade ago, when gas prices were far higher, the senior Democratic aide said.
At this point, there were some congressional voices urging colleagues to reconsider overriding the president’s veto. But those were not enough to derail the override sought by the Sept. 11 victims’ families.
Even so, with the bill becoming law, Ryan said he wants to see if it can be fixed.
“We want to make sure that the 9/11 victims and their families have their day in court,” he told reporters Thursday. “At the same time, 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, any kind of retribution.”
Corker said he hoped a fix could make it into a year-end, must-pass omnibus spending bill, or perhaps be enacted next year.
Saudi Arabia wants the law changed.
“It is our hope that wisdom will prevail and that Congress will take the necessary steps to correct this legislation in order to avoid the serious unintended consequences that may ensue,” the Saudi embassy said in a statement Thursday.
But Schumer dismissed the idea that governments other than Saudi Arabia are particularly concerned by what he and other sponsors have insisted is a narrow exemption to sovereign immunity.
“I’m willing to look at any proposal they make, but not any that hurt the families,” Schumer said.
Nor would he support limiting the bill to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“That tells the Saudis, go ahead and do it again, we won’t punish you,” he said.
— With assistance by Nafeesa Syeed, and Justin Sink