Can 9/11 Families Sue Saudi Arabia Now? Obama’s Veto Was Overridden

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted to override President Obama’s veto of a law which would allow American citizens who were the victim of terrorism on American soil to sue foreign governments which sponsor said terrorism. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which was intended to allow victims of the September 11 attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government for any complicity in the attacks, was vetoed by the president on Friday. The Senate overrode the president’s veto with an overwhelming 97-1 vote (only 67 votes were needed for the override). The lone senator voting against the override was outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid.

The House of Representatives will meet later on Wednesday, and it is expected to follow with its own override vote.

This marks the first time in Obama’s presidency that the Senate has overridden a presidential veto. Obama had vetoed 11 previous pieces of legislation, most notably the Keystone XL Pipeline bill, which came close to a Senate override in 2015, falling just five votes shy of the two-thirds margin required.

The White House has held that enacting the law, making sovereign nations susceptible to legal threats from individuals, could have negative repercussions, and could put the U.S. and its military and diplomatic officials at risk for similar legal challenges. This, according to the administration, could compromise national security.

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“I recognize that there is nothing that could ever erase the grief the 9/11 families have endured,” Obama wrote on Friday in his veto message to the Senate. “The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why I am returning it without my approval.”

Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said to Politico that “overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly,” but that allowing the families of 9/11 victims to pursue this legal action was important, “even if that pursuit causes diplomatic discomforts.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), another co-sponsor of the bill, claimed that the president’s concerns were unfounded. “It’s very narrowly tailored,” Cornyn said, referring to restrictions in the bill that would limit such legal actions to terrorist attacks that occur on U.S. soil. “This isn’t just some open-ended bill.”

Whether this scrap with Congress will leave its mark upon Obama's time in office remains to be seen. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a press conference last Friday that “the president’s not blind to the politics of the situation,” adding that Obama was “willing to take some political heat in order to do the right thing.”