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Override by Congress Restores 9/11 Victim Bill

WASHINGTON (CN) — Both chamber of Congress executed their first veto override of the Obama presidency on Wednesday to adopt legislation that lets families and victims of the 9/11 attacks sue Saudi Arabia.

The bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, will create an exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to let American victims of terrorism sue foreign governments for terror attacks carried out on U.S. soil.

Until now, Americans have only been able to sue governments that the U.S. has designated as state sponsors of terrorism.

Right now, many of those lawsuits are filed against Iran and Syria.

Saudi Arabia lobbied hard against the legislation, which the Obama administration urged Congress not to adopt the bill over concerns that it could trigger blowback from longtime U.S. allies.

Though vetoed by President Barack Obama on Sept. 23, the bill enjoyed wide bipartisan support. Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada cast the only no-vote in the Senate today, bringing the final override tally to 97-1.

The House voted on the matter next, passing the override 348-77, and serving Obama the first veto override of his presidency.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest condemned lawmakers.

"I would venture to say that this the single-most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983," Earnest said.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal downplayed the threat of potential blowback.

"There is a parade of imagined horribles that simply is overblown and exaggerated," said Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. "And I understand them, and I respect the president, but right now Saudi Arabia or any other country can be held accountable if they aid terrorists within our borders. If they do it outside our borders they shouldn't be spared that accountability."

"There's a fundamental principle of American justice, and we should not compromise it just because of these threatened reprisals or retaliation," he added.

Sen. Chuck Schumer assured reporters that JASTA, as the bill is abbreviated, does not introduce an entirely new way to litigate.

"Countries should understand if they participate in terrorism they should pay a price, period," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y, told reporters after the vote. "This restores the law to where it was in 2005."

JASTA came to fruition through fierce efforts of 9/11 victims and families, who have pushed Congress to pass the legislation. Both the Senate and House passed the bill unanimously by voice vote in May and September, respectively.

But President Obama balked over diplomatic concerns that JASTA would prompt other countries to respond with similar legislation, possibly putting U.S. service members and government officials at risk for prosecution abroad.

That argument failed to persuade American lawmakers, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a sponsor of the bill.

"This doesn't affect other countries," Cornyn said after the vote. "This is American law affecting American courts and Americans' access to courts. So this doesn't have any impact on what happens in other countries around the world."

The White House press secretary meanwhile quoted one Republican senator as saying that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were not quite sure what the bill did.

"For those senators then to move forward in overriding the president's veto that would prevent those negative consequences is an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people," Earnest said.

The CIA also chimed in with similar concerns about the bill's "grave implications" for national security.

"The most damaging consequence would be for those U.S. government officials who dutifully work overseas on behalf of our country," an agency press statement said.

"The principle of sovereign immunity protects U.S. officials every day, and is rooted in reciprocity. If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries, we place our own nation's officials in danger. No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States — and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA."

Blumenthal told reporters that the White House engaged in "vigorous" outreach to senators, but ultimately had the lesser argument.

"All we're doing today is closing loopholes and giving rights to Americans they should have had all along," he said.

The bill behind JASTA was introduced a little more than a month after a New York federal judge dismissed the type of lawsuit it envisions on Aug. 14, 2015.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels blocked victims' families from suing the head of two Saudi charities in New York after finding that the nonprofit chief, Abdul Rahman Al-Swailem, qualified for immunity.

Since that time, Daniels pruned two more defendants from the litigation, including the kingdom itself and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated cases in the action are now awaiting appeal in the Second Circuit.

Capital Hill's vote means these families will have another day in U.S. District Court, said Jerry Goldman, an attorney with the law firm Anderson Kill.

"All of the victims who we've spoken to, they're happy that Congress did the right thing," Goldman added.

Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld contributed to the reporting of this article.

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