Obama Veto Would Block Lawsuits Against Foreign Governments Linked to Terrorist Attacks

Measure has broad support in Congress, but White House warns of repercussions

President Barack Obama is concerned that the 9/11 legislation could prompt other countries to pass similar bills and drag the U.S. government into foreign courts. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

President Barack Obama will veto a measure that would allow families of the victims of terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments believed to be linked to those attacks.

A major reason for the veto is his expectation that federal judges would rule differently on whether those links even exist, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. Another is that it could prompt other countries to pass similar laws that would "drag" the U.S. government, corporations and even diplomats into courts in their countries, Earnest said.

The House unanimously passed the legislation on Friday despite the Obama administration's months-old concerns and efforts to secure language changes.

[House Passes Bill Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia]

The legislation, which also passed the Senate by a wide margin in May, would narrow the scope of foreign sovereign immunity by authorizing federal courts to hear criminal and civil cases against foreign states or officials suspected to have been involved in acts of international terrorism, according to a Congressional Research Service summary. It would impose liability when applicable.

Obama intends to use a traditional veto, rather than rejecting the measure by not signing it, meaning he will send it back to Capitol Hill. Congressional leaders would then have to decide whether to hold floor votes to override his veto pen — which they have the numbers to easily do. 

Some have called the bill an attempt to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for alleged ties to the Sept. 11 attacks.

[Congress Publishes Long-Secret Chapter of 9/11 Report]

The president is aware his coming veto of the bill will anger some 9/11 families, Earnest said, adding that the White House believes Obama's "words and deeds" in helping the families "speak for themselves."

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said Monday that he's "confident" Congress would override the president's expected veto.

But the Texas Republican said Obama should act quickly to return the legislation to the Capitol.

"He should not delay, so that Congress can quickly decide whether to override that veto," Cornyn said. "He could make it hard if not impossible for Congress to vote to override the veto."

Prior to the House vote, Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday that members had weighed concerns about the bill but that most seemed to believe the arguments for the legislation were more compelling.

[House to Put Obama in Tough Spot With 9/11 Bill Vote]

"I think that the votes are very overwhelmingly in favor," the Wisconsin Republican said. "This bill passed unanimously in the United States Senate. So I think that those concerns have been taken under consideration, and I think members are acting accordingly. And that's why this bill will pass."

House lawmakers passed the bill by a voice vote under suspension of the rules, a procedure that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. That means that a significant number of House Democrats are willing to ignore Obama's concerns too.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters the administration tried to get the House to change language in the bill and send it back to the Senate, but she called that effort "a little late."

The bill has also been a topic on the campaign trail.

[Hillary Clinton 'Overheated' at 9/11 Memorial Ceremony]

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has split with Obama on the measure, announcing her support for the bill in April.

“Wherever the trail may lead, it should be followed,” Clinton, a former secretary of state, told a New York radio station in April. “We need justice."

Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, does not appear to have taken a position. But he has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia for failing to reciprocate the financial and military support it gets from the United States.

Niels Lesniewski, Lindsey McPherson and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.

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