The U.S. Congress on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation allowing relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia, the first veto override of his eight-year presidency.
The House of Representatives voted 348-76 against the veto, just hours after the Senate rejected it 97-1, meaning the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” will become law.
The vote was a blow to Obama and to Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ longest-standing allies in the Arab world.
Obama’s 11 previous vetoes were all sustained. But this time almost all of his strongest supporters in Congress opposed him in one of their last actions before leaving Washington to campaign for the Nov. 8 election.
“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,” Senator Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said in a statement.
Schumer represents New York, the site of the World Trade Center and home to many of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 2001 attacks, attack survivors and families of victims.
He led the fight for the legislation in the Senate, with Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s other senator and also a Democrat, cast the 67th “no” vote, the number needed to override the veto in the Senate.
Obama had argued that the bill, known as JASTA, could expose U.S. companies, troops and officials to lawsuits, and alienate important allies at a time of global unrest. He called Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and wrote a personal letter to him explaining that he strongly believed enacting JASTA into law would be detrimental to U.S. interests. Reid became the only senator to side with Obama.
A White House spokesman slammed the Senate’s vote.
“This is the single most embarrassing thing this United States Senate has done possibly since 1983,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
The Saudi government financed an extensive lobbying campaign against the legislation.
Major U.S. corporations including General Electric Co and Dow Chemical Co also opposed it, as did the European Union and other U.S. allies.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter urged lawmakers to sustain the veto, and in an unusual move, CIA Director John Brennan issued a statement before Wednesday’s votes saying the bill had “grave implications” for national security.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, and Bernie Sanders, an independent and former Democratic White House contender, did not vote.