The two top Republicans in Congress said they're prepared to rewrite legislation allowing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia — less than 24 hours after Congress took the extraordinary step of overriding President Barack Obama's veto of the measure to make it law.
Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the measure could have unintended consequences — including the fact that it could leave U.S. soldiers open to retaliation by foreign governments.
"I would like to think there's a way we can fix so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims," Ryan told reporters Thursday, one day after his chamber voted 348-77 to override the veto.
McConnell also said he was worried about unintended consequences of the measure, saying changes to the law might be needed.
"It's worth further discussing," he told reporters Thursday. "It was certainly not something that was going to be fixed this week."
Before the vote, senior administration officials warned lawmakers of this exact problem — that weakening the concept of sovereign immunity could backfire if foreign countries tried to do the same for the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter sent House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas a letter saying that could potentially expose Americans to lawsuits and "an intrusive discovery process" even if the U.S. is ultimately found not to be responsible for a particular event.
But Republicans said the White House didn't make a forceful case, putting themselves in the awkward position of blaming the president for a bill they enacted into law over Obama's veto.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the episode an "abject embarrassment" and said that officials warned lawmakers about the possible consequences multiple times.
"What's true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress," Earnest told reporters Thursday. "Ignorance is not an excuse."
Chuck Schumer of New York, the likely next Democratic leader and sponsor of the bill, said he wouldn't accept changes that would weaken the bill.
"I'm willing to look at any proposal they make, but not any that hurt the families," Schumer said Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Senate overrode the veto in a 97-1 vote. The original measure passed both chambers on voice votes.
McConnell blamed the White House for an inadequate effort to explain its concerns, saying there was "a failure to communicate early."
"Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were but nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped," McConnell told reporters.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told reporters that he spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir Wednesday night and said the Saudis are interested in options for tweaking the law, something that couldn't happen until after the November election.
"At a minimum, it would be limiting to the 9/11 attacks themselves," Corker said. Another option would be to change the legal thresholds in the bill, he added, or create a separate process of a legal tribunal.
Corker said during a hearing Thursday that he talked to Secretary of State John Kerry twice, "and we agreed the best way to resolve this was to have a meeting" with bill sponsors Schumer and Texas Republican John Cornyn, along with Reid and McConnell, to see if they could find another option that "maybe would not have the adverse consequences some of us fear."
"Secretary Kerry couldn't even get the White House to call me," Corker added.
The White House never issued a formal veto threat on the measure, but Earnest told reporters several times that the president would veto it.
Obama on Wednesday night called the override "a mistake" at a town hall event at Fort Lee, Virginia hosted by CNN. Other countries, he said, may respond by allowing their citizens to sue the U.S. for actions by American soldiers, diplomats or corporate executives, who are usually protected from litigation by the concept of sovereign immunity.
"It's a dangerous precedent," he said. "It's an example of why sometimes you have to do what's hard. I wish Congress here had done what's hard."
John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make a last-minute appeal to lawmakers to sustain the veto, warning the bill could have "grave implications" by undermining the concept of sovereign immunity.
"No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States — and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA," he said in a statement.
Corker and several other senators said they had suggested putting off the override vote, but Republican leaders decided to schedule it before Congress left town to hit the campaign trail.
Corker said last week the bill only passed the Senate on a voice vote the first time around because members didn't think the House would take it up. But the House sent it to the president's desk.
Saudi Arabia hasn't given up, with its foreign minister releasing a statement Thursday urging Congress to change course.
"It is our hope that wisdom will prevail and that Congress will take the necessary steps to correct this legislation in order to avoid the serious unintended consequences that may ensue," the Saudi embassy said.
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