WASHINGTON—The GOP-led Congress has been angling for this moment: the chance to finally deliver President Barack Obama a stinging rebuke with the first veto override since he took office.
It may not be exactly the political score many Republicans had envisioned. The timing comes near the end of Obama’s presidency and on a bill—which would let 9/11 families sue the Saudi Arabian government—that some lawmakers concede is problematic.
But on Wednesday, the Senate voted 97-1 to override Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The House swiftly followed with an override vote of 348-77.
The override was the first time Congress has successfully challenged the president on a piece of legislation, despite Obama’s 12 other vetoes, including 10 when Republicans were the majority of both houses. In most instances, Congress didn’t even attempt an override.
The White House, which made modest gestures to prevent this week’s outcome with tough warnings from its national security team, blasted the vote as “embarrassing,” warning that lawmakers would have to answer to their constituents.
A cadre of blue-chip lobby shops was being paid top dollar by the Saudi government to try to derail the action. But the opposition was a long-shot effort that has little chance against the compelling stories of the 9/11 victims’ families and friends who have pressured Congress for almost a decade to pass the legislation.
“This rare moment of bipartisanship is a testament to the strength of the 9/11 families,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrat-New York, one of the bill’s lead authors. “Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case.”
After a personal appeal from Obama, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, was the lone vote against the override. Two other senators did not vote because they were on the presidential campaign trail in support of Hillary Clinton—Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The legislation would amend existing law to allow US courts to hear terrorism cases against foreign states, narrowing the scope of immunity now granted to sovereign foreign actors.
Supporters say it will allow victims of terrorism their day in court. But opponents, including the administration, warn that it could complicate US relationships abroad, impede national security investigations and open the floodgates to similar suits by foreigners against the US government.
The Central Intelligence Agency director warned the bill could have “grave implications” for national security, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said it could be “devastating” to the department and “undermine” counterterrorism efforts abroad.
The legislation has bounced around Washington for years, but it was never expected to advance. Schumer, the brash New Yorker who is poised to become the Senate Democratic leader next year, succeeded in passing it through the Senate in spring on a voice vote, without a formal roll call.
The House seized the opportunity to corner Obama, and just before the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, approved the measure on a swift voice vote.
In the weeks since, the White House and opponents—and even some reluctant lawmakers—have scrambled to play catch-up. Top lobbying firms employing former congressional leaders, including Trent Lott, John Breaux and others, were hired quickly by the Saudi government, some on $100,000-a-month retainers, to fight the override vote.
Several key lawmakers have expressed concerns about the legislation, saying they are having second thoughts about supporting the bill. But not enough were ultimately willing to stop it.
“The president feels strongly about this. He’s also aware of how challenging the politics are,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday.
The override vote not only is a public slap at the president, but a reminder of his often tenuous relationship with Congress.
Obama has been criticized for having little experience with Capitol Hill, and even less engagement. He outsourced too much of his legislating to staff, critics said, without investing in the personal relationships needed to bargain with lawmakers.
When Republicans became the majority in both houses in 2015, they envisioned turning Obama into a vetoer in chief, eager to force the president into the uncomfortable position of rejecting bill after bill from the new Congress.
The strategy was seen by former House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a way to fire up their partisan GOP base and show the two parties’ different approaches to legislating.
But that never really happened.
Faced with their own party infighting, the Republican House and Senate often struggled to find common ground and muster their own votes to send bills to the White House.
When they did, Obama easily swatted the bills back with a veto message. On the few occasions when Republicans mounted an override attempt, Democrats sustained the vetoes.
The closest Republicans came to a victory was on a bill to expedite construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that many Democrats also supported. But the override fell a few votes short of the 67 needed.
Obama even appeared to lament that he didn’t always have true sparring partners in the gridlocked Congress.
“I don’t generally even have to veto anything because they can’t get organized enough even to present the cockamamie legislation that they’re interested in passing,” Obama said at a recent New York fundraiser. Officials at the White House are downplaying the significance of this week’s votes, seeing the action as an outlier after nearly two years in which a Republican congressional majority failed to produce much landmark legislation for the president to sign, let alone veto.
While adamant that the 9/11 legislation could have far-reaching consequences and potentially hurt US alliances, not only with Saudi Arabia but with other allies, the administration does not appear to have made a full-court effort to stop it.