Congress Might Override Obama's 9/11 Victims Bill Veto

President Obama sitting at his desk vetoing a bill
President Obama Vetoes a Bill Passed by Congress. White House Press Pool / Getty Images

UPDATE: On September 28, 2016, the U.S. Congress did succeed in overriding President Obama's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) giving victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. The Senate voted 97-1 in favor of the override, while the House voted 348-77 in favor of the override. 

So far, none of President Obama’s 12 presidential vetoes have been overridden by Congress.

But with his recent veto of the so-called “9/11 Victims Bill,” that may change.

On September 23, Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would have cleared the way for victims of the September 11, 2001, terror attack to sue the Saudi Arabian government in U.S courts.

While 15 of the 19 terrorists aboard the hijacked airliners in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals, it has never been proven that they had been directly supported by the Saudi government. Still, many families of the victims, especially those living in New York City, have appealed to Congress for years to pass legislation giving them the legal standing to sue the Saudi government.

Under current federal law, U.S. citizens – including 9/11 victims -- can only file civil lawsuits against the three foreign governments designated by the U.S. Department of State as known sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Having seen their bill pass unanimously by voice votes in both the House and Senate, JASTA’s bipartisan sponsors feel they have the support needed to override the veto, forcing it to become law.

Why Obama Vetoed the Bill

In opposing JASTA, President Obama argued that it would place Americans, including U.S. servicemen and women, and U.S. diplomats serving abroad at risk of being sued or even jailed by other countries, possibly on bogus charges.

“I recognize that there is nothing that could ever erase the grief the 9/11 families have endured,” Obama wrote in his veto message to Congress. “Enacting JASTA into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.”

Obama also expressed his fear that JASTA could complicate U.S. relationships with its allies and enemies alike.

“JASTA threatens to reduce effectiveness of our response to state involvement in terrorism by taking such matters out of the hands of national security and foreign policy and putting them in the hands of courts and private litigants,” he wrote, adding, “JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests.”

Overriding a Presidential Veto is Hard Work

Overriding a presidential veto is no small task. In fact, of the 1,507 bills vetoed by all 44 presidents from George Washington to Barak Obama, only 110 – about 7% -- have been overridden by Congress.

Under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution, overriding a presidential veto requires both the House and Senate to approve the override measure by two-thirds, supermajority vote of the members present.

Assuming that all 100 members of the Senate and all 435 members of the House are present for the vote, the override measure would need 67 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House.

The chamber of Congress that originated the bill sent to the president acts first on the question of overriding the veto. However, if either chamber of Congress fails to vote to override a veto, the other chamber does not even attempt an override vote even if the chamber’s leadership knows the votes needed to succeed are present. At that point, the override process ends and the president’s veto stands. The only option left to Congress is to revise the bill to satisfy the objections expressed by the president. The veto power does not give the president the power to amend or alter the content of legislation. The president only has the ability to accept or reject an entire act passed by Congress.

Should both chambers of Congress successfully vote to override a presidential veto, the bill becomes law immediately.

President Obama’s 12 regular vetoes over two terms in office is not a comparatively large or small number. For example:

President Grover Cleveland holds the record for regular vetoes. During his two terms, Cleveland issued 304 regular vetoes. However, Congress, never being on the best terns with Cleveland, overrode 110 of his vetoes. Some of President Cleveland’s most controversial vetoes included a bill granting a pension to any disabled Union or Confederate veteran, and a bill that would have provided seed grain to drought-stricken farmers in the American West.