9/11 bill becomes law after US Congress blocks Obama’s veto

Published September 29th, 2016 - 07:00 GMT
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum at the Plaza Hotel, September 21, 2016 in New York City. (AFP/Drew Angerer)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum at the Plaza Hotel, September 21, 2016 in New York City. (AFP/Drew Angerer)

US President Barack Obama's effort to shield foreign governments from lawsuits by relatives of 9/11 victims, believing the legal actions would cause more harm than good, was in vain.

The US House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday each voted to override the president's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which will now go into law and permit 9/11 families to take civil action against governments shown to be sponsors of terrorism, including Saudi Arabia.

Obama's veto was first superseded by the Senate, by a vote of 97-1, and then the House, 348-77. The lone dissenter in the Senate was Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Two senators who were not present were Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Among those who dissented in the House were Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Rep. Darrell Issa, D-Calif., Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Rep.Devin Nunes, R-Calif. One voted "present" and five abstained from voting.

The override is the first of Obama's presidency after 12 vetoes were not overridden. The president vetoed the bill Friday.

In his veto message to Congress, Obama said Americans would be opened up to similar lawsuits from foreign nations and it would infringe on his administration's ability to conduct foreign policy.

"I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, who have suffered grievously. I also have a deep appreciation of these families' desire to pursue justice and am strongly committed to assisting them in their efforts," Obama wrote in the letter.

However, most Republicans and many Democrats in both chambers of Congress did not see eye-to-eye with the president on the matter.

"Both parties will come together," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, one of the bill's lead authors, said. "The families of the victims of 9/11 deserve their day in court, and justice for those families shouldn't be thrown overboard because of diplomatic concerns."

The number of Democrats who voted for the override came as a surprise to some political analysts and may be a compromise by Democrats in exchange for greater Republican support on other legislation, such as recent congressional efforts to strip down the president's health care law.

The new law allows relatives of victims to sue foreign nations deemed to be sponsors of terror and complicit in attacks on US soil. Although the law practically opens up all nations to civil actions, its impact on Saudi Arabia has been particularly noted, as it's been alleged that the government in Riyadh had some connection to the 9/11 attacks.

"If the Saudi government had no involvement in 9/11, it has nothing to fear. But if it was culpable then it should be held accountable," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Wednesday.

Operatives tied to the Saudi government, some allege, developed the plot to hijack airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the attacks.

Speculation over the Saudis' involvement reached a fever pitch due to 28 heavily-redacted pages of the federal government's official 2004 investigation into the attacks. Much of the redaction was removed earlier this year and noted the possible Saudi links.

The 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism sent a letter to Congress on Tuesday urging lawmakers to override "the President's unjustifiable veto."

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