President Obama was mistaken if he thought he could outlast Congress in a veto showdown over legislation allowing Americans to sue Saudi Arabian officials over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Both Democrats and Republicans spread out across Capitol Hill on Tuesday to demand that Mr. Obama make a decision quickly. If he is going to veto the bill, they said, there is little doubt that they will find the votes to override it for the first time in Mr. Obama’s tenure.
They were buoyed by families of those killed in the 2001 attacks. The families said they have waited long enough and excoriated the president, who is usually a backer of civil lawsuits as a tool for justice, for opposing their request.
“Denying us justice is un-American,” said Terry Strada, whose husband died in the New York attacks.
The bill, dubbed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, cleared the Senate and the House without a single objection. It now sits on Mr. Obama’s desk.
The president had tried to build opposition to the bill on Capitol Hill and, failing that, has said he would veto the bill. He has until Friday.
White House officials say they are hoping to rally lawmakers to belatedly join the president and uphold his veto.
“There’s openness to our argument; there’s even sympathy for our argument,” spokesman Josh Earnest insisted last week. “We just need to turn that into votes, and we’ll continue to make the case.”
If the legislation passes, the White House says, it will spark an ugly war of retaliation, opening U.S. officials to court cases in other countries based on their decisions in fighting the war on terrorism.
But authors of the legislation said they crafted a narrow bill that would punish only those involved in actual terrorism. They dismissed Mr. Obama’s effort to sway lawmakers and urged him to act.
“Why are you waiting, Mr. President?” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, challenged Mr. Obama. “If you’re going to veto it, veto it and send it back to us so we can have the vote to override that veto, which I’m confident we will.”
The legislation would overturn a series of court rulings that decided victims of terrorist attacks couldn’t sue for damages against those overseas who aided in the attacks, particularly when the accused had sovereign immunity as officials of a foreign government.
Families of those killed in the attacks have long suspected that Saudi Arabian officials were complicit but have been unable to raise those claims in court because of the court rulings.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said Congress never intended for different standards depending on whether the terrorist attack was plotted in the U.S. or overseas. “Everybody deserves a day in court,” he said.
The Sept. 11 court case got a bit of a boost earlier this year when the administration released a long-secret portion of an investigation into the 2001 attacks that detailed suspicions — all unconfirmed — of involvement by people with links to the Saudi government.
Mr. Obama has been remarkably successful with his veto pen. Thanks to Senate Democrats’ quick use of the filibuster, few bills he has disapproved of have cleared Congress, and none of his 12 vetoes has been overridden.
The Saudi government has vehemently lobbied against approval of the legislation.
Meanwhile, the Senate is slated to vote this week on a resolution that would block the sale of U.S.-manufactured advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said Saudi forces are using those weapons to support an ill-advised proxy war in neighboring Yemen, and he wants it stopped.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who supports the victims’ lawsuit bill, said Congress should uphold the arms sales.
“I think it’s important to the United States to maintain as good a relationship with Saudi Arabia as possible,” he said.