Obama Faces Possible First Veto Override Of His Presidency

Sep 23, 2016
Originally published on September 23, 2016 8:30 am
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is a showdown looming in Congress, and it has a dynamic that we're not used to. It's pitting President Obama against not just Republicans but possibly a majority of Democrats as well. At issue is a bill, a popular one, that would allow relatives of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. The president is expected to veto this bill today, and we may then see the first override of a veto in the Obama presidency. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: There are clear signs both the House and Senate may muster two-thirds majorities to override the president's expected veto. Still, White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted yesterday that by midnight tonight the bill allowing Americans to sue Saudi Arabia will be vetoed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: This is a bad bill. It's why the president's going to veto it.

WELNA: The reason, Earnest said, is it would set a legal precedent that could lead to reprisals by other nations against the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EARNEST: If the president's veto were overridden, the United States government, U.S. servicemembers, U.S. diplomats and even potentially U.S. companies are at risk of being hauled into court in countries all around the world.

WELNA: Such warnings did not keep either the House or Senate from passing the bill unanimously by voice vote. Its sponsors are confident it will become law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CORNYN: I trust that we will override the president's veto once it arrives here.

WELNA: That's Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. He co-sponsored the bill with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. Cornyn says it only removes sovereign immunity protections for foreign officials charged with aiding and abetting terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNYN: So that the families who suffered so much and lost so much on 9/11 can go to court and make the case, if they can, to hold whoever was responsible accountable.

WELNA: Thousands of relatives of 9/11 victims contend in a lawsuit that Saudi Arabian officials helped fund at least some of the hijackers who killed those victims. Jack Quinn, a lawyer who served in the Clinton White House, is representing those families.

JACK QUINN: That story, when told, will not only shock most Americans but distress them that in the face of that, our government is trying to prevent these families from being able to uncover the whole truth.

WELNA: Which may be why many Democrats seem willing to defy their president in a veto override vote. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey is one of them.

BOB CASEY: I think these families deserve their day in court, and this may be the only way that they have that opportunity, 15 long years since the tragedy of 9/11.

WELNA: The White House says this could set a very bad precedent and that it could lead to American officials being hauled into court abroad.

CASEY: Well, I've heard that argument. I don't think our history indicates that.

WELNA: Other Democrats are clearly in a quandary, including Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, one of Obama's closest allies.

DICK DURBIN: I haven't made a final decision, but I'm thinking long and hard on it. I mean, it is a hard call, and I'm still wrestling with it.

WELNA: The votes on a veto override could happen in the next few days, just weeks before an election in which a lot of lawmakers' jobs are on the line. Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller advised both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state on the Middle East. He says both the subject of the bill and the timing of the override vote bode ill for the president.

AARON DAVID MILLER: A congressional override of a presidential veto on foreign policy is quite rare, but I think it would be largely driven by the understandably emotional resonance in the age of terror in which we now live.

WELNA: Some lawmakers regret a bill passed in haste on voice votes may now become law. Senator Dianne Feinstein is a California Democrat.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: You know, it's one of those great learning experiences. I'm going to be more careful about jumping on things that haven't had a hearing.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: And we should mention, later today on All Things Considered as part of our series A Nation Engaged, why many Americans are not prepared to deal with the tradeoffs that come with a more dynamic economy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.