Congress has stymied Obama in a variety of ways during his nearly eight years in office. It has stalled his proposals to raise the minimum wage, to enact legislation combatting climate change, and to reform immigration laws. It has blocked his repeated efforts to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And more recently, the Senate has ignored his nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
But until now, and despite Republican control on Capitol Hill since 2015, the House and Senate had been unable to assert their own prerogative and pass a bill over the explicit opposition of the president. Democrats have generally maintained a unified front against partisan GOP proposals, either preventing them from reaching Obama’s desk or sustaining his veto in the few times they did. Asked to comment on the likelihood of a first veto override, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s reaction on Tuesday was to wonder what took so long. “I think there are a couple reasons for that,” he said. “The first is, we have not seen the U.S. Congress be particularly effective at passing legislation. The president hasn’t issued that many vetoes, period.”
“So the fact that the president hasn’t vetoed that many bills I think is a pretty damning indictment of the effectiveness of Republicans in Congress,” Earnest continued. “That’s just a fact.”
The difference here is that the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is chiefly a Democratic bill, championed most vocally by Senator Charles Schumer on behalf of his constituents in New York. He worked over a period of years with a Republican colleague, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, to narrow the legislation and allay lawmaker fears of diplomatic retaliation. “This rare moment of bipartisanship is a testament to the strength of the 9/11 families, and the validity of their pursuit of justice,” Schumer said after the vote on Wednesday. “Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts.”
Still, the Obama administration never came around. Senior officials continued to lobby against the bill even when it was clear votes were there to enact it, perhaps to show allies like Saudi Arabia that it was at least mounting a fight. Earnest reacted angrily after the Senate acted, calling the veto override “the single most embarrassing thing the Senate has done” in decades. CIA Director John Brennan called the legislation “badly misguided” and said it “doesn’t take into account the negative impact on U.S. national security.”
“I think there’s a very, very dangerous slippery slope that we’re going to get on,” Brennan said Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum presented by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. He added that “foreign governments are going to start to pass similar type of legislation that is going to haul the United States into court overseas, even for the most frivolous charges and allegations for what the U.S. has done overseas.”