Congress today sent President Obama a bill that would let families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to terrorism, but advocates of the legislation worry it could be defeated by a presidential veto.
The House passed the legislation by voice vote with leaders calling it a “moral imperative” to allow victims’ families to seek justice for the deaths of loved ones as the country marks the 15th anniversary of the attacks.
But supporters are bracing for a veto fight with the White House. They also are warily eyeing the congressional calendar over fears the administration – which argues the bill could harm the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and establish a legal precedent that jeopardizes American officials overseas – may try to pocket veto the legislation if lawmakers leave Washington soon to focus on the election, depriving Congress of an opportunity to hold an override vote.
Victims’ families who have long implored Congress to pass the bill are now planning to mark the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and damaged the Pentagon by pressuring lawmakers to stick around Washington until they see this bill through.
“This is more important than campaigning,” said Terry Strada, who lost her husband in the attacks, and is national chair of the victims’ families’ organization bringing a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. “You can campaign after, you will never have a chance to pass [the bill] again. This is the priority.”
A pocket veto could help the White House avoid some of the political fallout that could come from outright vetoing a measure aimed at helping 9/11 victims, a move that could fuel an emotional backlash and an uncomfortable debate in the weeks before Election Day.
Supporters of the 9/11 bill have long known that the White House would likely veto the legislation, which would allow courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in cases involving terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Saudi Arabia has lobbied hard against the legislation, even threatening to start selling off U.S. assets if the measure passes. The White House has threatened a veto on the rationale that it could put U.S. diplomatic officials in a bad position if countries respond by similarly ignoring the established practice of granting immunity to foreign government representatives.
“This administration strongly continues to oppose this legislation, and, you know, we’ll obviously begin conversations with the House about it,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said in May when the Senate passed the bill.
Advocates for the legislation dispute the validity of the White House’s arguments, pointing out countries that have done nothing wrong and don’t support terrorists have nothing to worry about.
Since the Senate passed the legislation in May, the government released a previously classified set of pages from a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that dealt with suspected connections between Saudi Arabia and the terrorists involved. Those pages did not significantly add to the information that had already been made public through other documents and reports.
But supporters are confident they have the votes to override a veto. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously by voice vote and the House is also expected to pass the bill Friday with strong support.
Once Congress sends the bill to the president, Obama will have 10 days to veto the legislation or the bill automatically becomes law. But if Congress adjourns before the 10-day clock runs out, it could trigger a pocket veto – a constitutional quirk that allows a president to defeat a legislative proposal by holding onto it until Congress is out of session.
While the House is scheduled to stay in session through September, the Senate could disband as early as the end of next week so that lawmakers can focus on their campaigns through Election Day, according to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who chairs the Senate Republicans’ campaign operation.
A Senate GOP leadership aide said Friday that the Senate planned to hold pro forma sessions while Congress is out of town to prevent the White House from making a pocket veto, or staging any other surprise moves.
But there is some dispute over whether pro forma sessions are enough to prevent the administration from attempting a pocket veto.
In late 2007, President George W. Bush claimed the right to pocket veto a defense-spending bill over the protests of congressional leaders. At the time, the House had adjourned for a holiday break and the Senate was holding pro forma sessions every few days – a practice that has become standard to prevent the White House from making recess appointments.
Because the 9/11 bill started in the Senate, leaders there are confident that the pro forma sessions will prevent anyone from arguing that Congress has legally “adjourned,” as defined by the Constitution.
Victims’ families say they are pressuring the White House to back off its veto threat while also asking lawmakers to stay in town in case an override vote is needed.
“I don’t believe they’re going to let us down,” Strada said. “I don’t think they would have done all this work, just to let it fall apart at the end.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Karoun Demirjian