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Californians in Congress split on whether to let 9/11 victims sue Saudi Arabians

C-SPAN2 showed the result of the Senate’s vote Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, to override President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia. The House also voted to override, 348-77. Californians were split.
C-SPAN2 showed the result of the Senate’s vote Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, to override President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia. The House also voted to override, 348-77. Californians were split. AP

Californians in Congress were deeply divided over Wednesday’s vote to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill to allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged backing of the terrorists who committed the attacks.

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, was among the California Democrats who broke with the president to support the first successful veto override in the nearly eight years that Obama has been president.

“This is the least we can do for families of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11. They deserve to have their day in court,” said Bera, who is running for re-election in a competitive suburban Sacramento swing district.

Both of California’s Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, also voted to override the veto in spite of intense lobbying from the White House. Feinstein wavered in her support for the bill, though, and even after casting her vote warned the measure could harm national security by giving other nations an excuse to target U.S. officials with similar lawsuits.

The two leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Devin Nunes of Tulare and Democrat Adam Schiff of Burbank, both of whom had originally backed the bill, voted to uphold the veto and warned of the bill’s consequences.

Schiff said the bill “would have dangerous and unintended consequences for Americans who serve our country abroad in the armed services and the intelligence community.”

The veto override is a major defeat for the White House, as some of Obama’s staunchest congressional allies in California and across the nation turned against him on the issue. It also is a sign of growing congressional skepticism of Saudi Arabia and a tribute to the effectiveness of the lobbying effort by 9/11 victims’ families, who met with Feinstein prior to the vote.

The president argued that the bill weakens the law of sovereign immunity, which protects foreign nations from being sued in U.S. courts. Supporting the concept of sovereign immunity keeps American officials from being exposed to lawsuits abroad, the White House asserted.

I share the president’s concerns that the unintended consequences of this legislation may make our men and women serving overseas vulnerable.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, agreed with the president and voted against overriding his veto. So did Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who said she didn’t want to risk the possibility of exposing diplomats and members of the military to foreign courts. Both had originally supported the bill.

“I of course want justice for the families who were impacted by the horrible tragedies that took place on Sept. 11,” Matsui said. “But I share the president’s concerns that the unintended consequences of this legislation may make our men and women serving overseas vulnerable.”

Congress voted overwhelmingly against the president. The House of Representatives voted 348-77 and the Senate voted 97-1, with Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the only senator who sided with the president.

The bill would prevent countries accused of terrorism on U.S. soil from claiming sovereign immunity from lawsuits. Boxer said she saw nothing wrong with that.

“The people who lost loved ones deserve justice,” Boxer said.

Although Feinstein voted to support the bill, she said she’d pursue legislation to narrow its scope to the 9/11 attacks.

“In addition, I intend to look into whether we should limit the bill to apply only to those directly impacted by an attack – including individuals, their estates and property damage – rather than companies with only tangential connections,” Feinstein said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Harry Reid as the Senate majority leader.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham

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