A veto override?

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote today on whether to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill allowing relatives of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.

Many foreign policy experts don’t like the bill, which has been subject to numerous op-eds in the country’s leading newspapers. The president is concerned that the legislation will erode the international law of sovereign immunity, thereby making the U.S. an inviting target for lawsuits in foreign courts.

Writing for The New York Times, law professors Curtis Bradley (at Duke) and Jack Goldsmith (at Harvard) explained that immunity is a “reciprocal self-interest ” — an arrangement that has proved beneficial to the U.S. because “it conducts far more diplomatic, economic and military activities abroad than any other nation.”

Creating a broad general exception to immunity opens the door for “politicized lawsuits designed to contest (U.S.) foreign policy,” the law professors wrote.

A successful override requires support from two-thirds of lawmakers in both the Senate and House of Representatives, which are controlled by Republicans. Leaders in both chambers are confident they have the bipartisan votes to unravel the president’s veto.

“Look, if the Saudis did not participate in this terrorism, they have nothing to fear about going to court,” bill co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in May. “If they did, they should be held accountable.”

Giving Sept. 11 victims their day in court is a laudable goal, but it comes at a heavy price. Top Saudi officials have threatened to sell off billions of dollars in U.S. assets if Congress prevails. Legal exposure is the bigger concern, though proponents say the bill is narrowly crafted to minimize it.

Hopefully, that’s true. As Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post: “There are more victims of collateral damage from U.S. military action in the last 10 years than there are U.S. victims of terror. We have been using drone warfare for more than a decade. There have certainly been civilian casualties (we could be sued for).”

The irony of this impasse is that the famously gridlocked Congress is finally united on an issue — perhaps an ill-advised one. GOP lawmakers have expressed more concern over how the bill impacts national security than Democrats.

An override of Obama’s veto would be the first of his presidency. The looming election undoubtedly is a factor as incumbents don’t want to be accused of putting prudence before patriotism. Our system of checks and balances is in play. Whether it results in justice or unintended consequences remains to be seen.


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