As promised, President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) today, setting up what could be the first Congressional override of his entire presidency. JASTA would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for that nation’s involvement in supporting the attackers.
Obama has initially been keen to hold off on the veto until after the November elections, hoping that recently reelected Democrats would feel safer in changing their votes when they won’t have to answer to voters for a long time. This is particularly true in the Senate, which is seen as the body more likely to uphold the veto.
Both the House and Senate unanimously passed JASTA this summer, and House leaders say they are confident they will have more than enough support to override a veto. Heavy Saudi lobbying, however, has raised question marks in the Senate, and multiple senators are openly suggesting they’ll switch sides next time, citing the “dangerous precedent” the bill sets.
JASTA would be a special case abrogation of sovereign immunity, a legal premise that allows governments to do whatever they want without fear of legal repercussions from individuals. President Obama has warned that the precedent of allowing American victims to sue the Saudis for their role in the deadly 9/11 attack would also potentially open up the US to lawsuits for its own substantial back catalogue of misdeeds.
Saudi officials have openly threatened to collapse the US Treasury market in retaliation if JASTA is signed into law, and that likely also plays no small role in administration aversion to the bill, though publicly they have downplayed that angle, and focused instead on the risk of damaging sovereign immunity as such.
In practice, however, US law doesn’t recognize sovereign immunity as absolute. This theoretically allows lawsuits against state sponsors of terror, though this often depends heavily on Congressional and presidential decrees singling out a specific country, which usually happens to be a rival at the time, to allow such a suit.
The Senate has not yet set a date for the override vote, but Sen. Chuck Schumer (D – NY) expressed confidence that the votes were there to keep the bill from being killed by the president.