Obama's Veto Threat on the Saudi 9/11 Bill

The president still intends to reject legislation that would let victim’s families sue foreign governments for terror attacks—but Congress could override him.

Barack Obama speaks during a 9/11 commemoration at the Pentagon.
Barack Obama speaks during a 9/11 commemoration at the Pentagon. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

NEWS BRIEF President Obama hasn’t changed his mind about a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia—despite the overwhelming support of both the House and Senate.

The House on Friday passed the bill, which would create a special exception to a 1976 law that grants foreign governments immunity from lawsuits in cases where those governments were found to have played a role in a terrorist attack. The Senate passed the bill in the spring. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated on Monday that Obama intended to veto the bill. The New York Times reports:

“The president feels quite strongly about this,” Mr. Earnest said of the legislation, which Mr. Obama has said could dangerously undermine the United States’ interests globally, opening the country to a raft of lawsuits by private citizens overseas.

“The concept of sovereign immunity is one that protects the United States as much as any other country in the world,” Mr. Earnest said, referring to the rationale behind a 1976 law that gives other countries broad immunity from American lawsuits. “It’s not hard to imagine other countries using this law as an excuse to haul U.S. diplomats or U.S. service members, or even U.S. companies, into courts around the world.”

The issue places Obama in a tough political spot. U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, traditionally a key, if flawed, regional ally in the Middle East, have become strained during his term in office, but that has not changed his determined stance against the 9/11 bill. My colleague Peter Beinart in April made the case for why Obama should override it.

But the bill has bipartisan support in Congress—notably from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the presumptive Democratic leader in the Senate starting in January. Obama has vetoed fewer bills than any president since Warren Harding, but Congress has never overridden one of them. The 9/11 bill could become the first override of his presidency—though Earnest said he’d lobby legislators not to try.