WASHINGTON – It took Hill Republicans less than a day to go from political victory to mild panic.
On Thursday, a day after the Senate voted 97 to 1 to override President Barack Obama’s veto of the bill allowing 9/11 victims to sue foreign countries, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, pointed his finger at the White House for ostensibly not relaying the potential unintentional consequences of the measure.
“I think it was just a ball dropped,” he said. “I wish the president – I hate to blame everything on him and I don’t – but it would have been helpful had he, we, had a discussion about this much earlier than last week. . . .
“Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were, but nobody really focused on the potential downsides in terms of our international relationships.” Well. Not exactly nobody.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, sounded a similar note. “I’d like to think that there’s a way we could fix [it] so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims.”
Just to be totally clear, these two congressional leaders are responsible for handing Obama his biggest loss with Congress in nearly eight years – and an embarrassing foreign policy defeat at that.
But far from celebrating, they sound like they wish they could have a do-over. That’s an awkward enough position to be in. Blaming the president who battled them to consider the consequences beforehand defies logic.
While we don’t know what kind of lobbying went on behind the scenes, the public record is crystal clear: At every turn, Obama and the foreign policy community warned Congress of the negative impact of this bill.
– Sept. 9: The House of Representatives approved the bill, which allows families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government for its role in the attacks. (We know Saudi nationals participated in the attacks, but it’s never been proven the government itself was behind it, and Saudi Arabia, a key American ally on the fight on terrorism, vehemently denies it was.)
The Senate passed the bill in May.
– Sept. 12: The White House said Obama planned to veto the legislation, saying it could put service members in harm’s way by allowing them to get sued by foreign governments, which don’t always hold to the same legal standards as the United States.
– Sept. 15: As both sides prepared for a veto showdown, The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian quoted some lawmakers as having doubts about the bill, which passed both chambers without any objections: “From what I can tell, I don’t think the government of Saudi Arabia was involved,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
– Sept. 23: Hours before the deadline, Obama vetoed the bill: “Enacting [this legislation] into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks,” he said.
“The president’s not blind to the politics of this situation,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted – but was “willing to take some heat,” Earnest said, because the risks the bill posed to U.S. national security were too great.
A spokesman for McConnell told reporters the Senate would consider a veto override “as soon as practical,” i.e., in a few days.
– Sept. 28: A handful of lawmakers expressed more misgivings about the bill’s potential impacts.
But on Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted to override Obama’s veto – the first override of his presidency – 97 to 1. The lone dissenting vote was retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, whose spokesman told reporters Reid has “always had the president’s back.”
Hours later, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the veto override, by a vote of 348 to 77.
That night, Obama blasted Congress at a CNN town hall: “I wish Congress would have done what’s hard,” he said. “My job as commander in chief is to make sure we are looking ahead on how this will impact our overall mission.”
– Sept. 29: The day after the historic veto override, no one on Capitol Hill seemed to be celebrating.
Republican congressional leaders instead said that maybe they’d revisit the bill after the November election to make it more narrow. McConnell makes his statement suggesting the White House should have been clearer about the bill’s problems.
On Thursday afternoon, the White House was clearly furious.
“I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid onset buyer’s remorse,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “It’s hard to take at face value the suggestion that somehow they were unaware of the consequences of their vote. But even if they were, what’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress, ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security and the safety and security of our diplomats and our service members. …
“The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting on, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill – that’s a hard suggestion to take seriously,” he said.
Yes, plenty of Democrats voted for the measure. But the only reason it got to the floor in the first place is because congressional leadership wanted it to. Indeed, given the way this veto override played out – over the president’s objections – it defies logic to hear congressional leaders blame Obama for the situation they find themselves in. And that situation sounds a lot like buyer’s remorse.