On Terrorism Bill, Senators Report Silence from White House

Sen. Corker calls overturning of likely Obama veto a 'fait accompli'

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker was among the lawmakers willing to assuage White House concerns over the so-called 9/11 bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker was among the lawmakers willing to assuage White House concerns over the so-called 9/11 bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 20, 2016 at 5:10pm

Senators trying to assuage White House concerns about a bill allowing families of terrorist attacks in the United States to sue foreign governments say they have heard nary a peep from administration officials, portending a possible veto override as soon as next week.

President Barack Obama has until Friday to issue a promised veto of the measure, which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated Tuesday evening that the president will veto the bill.

The White House has long said it wants to alter language in the bill that it contends could prompt other nations to pass look-alike laws, leading to more lawsuits and inconsistent standards for what constitutes state support for terrorist attacks.

Last week, Earnest told reporters that White House aides remained interested in trying to revise the measure in a way that could garner the president’s signature. Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina indicated their willingness to broker a deal.

But last-minute talks had not materialized as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the lawmakers.

“No. Nothing. Zero,” Graham told Roll Call on Tuesday when asked what he had heard from administration officials. “It seems like we’re moving forward,” he added with a sarcastic chuckle.

“I am dumbfounded,” said Graham, who in the past has expressed similar frustration in trying to deal with the Obama White House.

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Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that he senses “no energy around this issue coming from the White House in terms of trying to work on a solution that they think will work.”

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.

The administration continues to contend that many lawmakers share its concerns on the measure, formally dubbed the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.” Earnest said Tuesday that members will soon have to decide whether the “votes they cast in public reflect the views they’ve expressed in private.” He cited conversations White House officials have had for months with members about the legislation.

But Corker called Congress’ overturning of Obama’s coming veto a “fait accompli,” saying he expected lawmakers will follow through “within the next week.”

Advocates for the bill told reporters on Tuesday that they believe they have the votes to override a coming veto — but they did not guarantee a victory.

The Senate passed the bill in April. Shortly after, White House aides said they intended to talk to House members who had expressed concerns close to their own about amending that version, setting up a House-Senate conference to hammer out a version that could make it to Obama’s desk and get his signature.

But lawmakers say those talks never materialized in a serious way.

“It’s astonishing their lack of engagement with the Senate or the House,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said. “We just really haven’t heard anything from them. … I think what that means is they have no relationship with the legislative branch.”

The Texas Republican called any ninth-inning outreach “a day late and a dollar short.”

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A White House National Security Council spokesman had not responded to a request for comment at time of publication.  

Another proponent of the legislation, Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters that he has seen “very little” White House engagement so far. “The clock is running out,” he added.

The Connecticut Democrat did not rule out supporting a revised version of the bill, but said of the 9/11 families with whom he appeared outside the Capitol on Tuesday: “I would accept no change that in any way impedes these families from getting their day in court.”

He and several family members who have been involved in crafting the legislation contend that the White House’s concerns do not reflect legal realities. For instance, Blumenthal said foreign governments have “protections” against baseless lawsuits filed in American courts.

The White House could be resigned to the measure becoming law, or it could be aiming to delay the override votes until after Election Day. It could be easier for members to vote against overturning Obama’s pen then.

Still, remarks from the House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, indicate that the administration faces an uphill battle even among Democrats. 

“There is tremendous empathy in the Congress of the United States,” he said, “for giving an avenue of redress of the deep grievances and grief that the families in America have suffered at the hands of the terrorists.”

Rema Rahman contributed to this report.Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.