Congress disses Obama one last time – Politico
Congress’ overwhelming rebuke of President Barack Obama on a bill allowing 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia — and the bitter finger-pointing that followed — was a fitting coda to the dysfunctional relationship between the Obama White House and Capitol Hill.
In the twilight of his presidency, Obama on Wednesday was summarily handed the first successful veto override on a bill that was wildly popular in Congress, yet stoked sharply worded warnings from top administration officials about potential national security ramifications.
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Notably, many influential lawmakers shared the White House’s concerns about the legislation, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which would allow victims of terrorism on U.S. soil to sue foreign governments found responsible for those attacks.
But instead of siding with the administration, Congress ended up blaming the White House for being MIA in the fight.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he and other senators repeatedly requested meetings with White House officials to hash out a potential deal that could accommodate some of the administration’s concerns.
But he heard nothing back, Corker said. It’s just been “dial tone,” the senator added.
“There’s been zero involvement from the White House. Zero,” Corker said, forming a “zero” with his fingers to underscore his point. “When you have a veto like this, it takes involvement, constructive involvement. I mean, there’s nothing.”
Meanwhile, the White House seemed floored that the same lawmakers who publicly expressed concerns about the bill would then turn around and swiftly override Obama’s veto.
“I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters following the Senate vote. “And to have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is, in itself, embarrassing.”
Obama himself weighed in later Wednesday, calling Congress’ overwhelming override a “mistake.”
“It’s a dangerous precedent, and it’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard. And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard,” Obama said in a town hall hosted by CNN. “If you’re perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that’s a hard vote for people to take. But it would have been the right thing to do.”
Earnest noted comments from one Senate Republican acknowledging uncertainty with what the legislation did. Indeed, some senators expressed a sense of buyer’s remorse in the days leading up to the critical vote Wednesday and were increasingly airing their worries about the bill’s implications — concerns that didn’t seem to surface earlier this year when the Senate unanimously passed the bill.
In a somewhat head-scratching development, nearly 30 senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asking for cooperation to alleviate potential unintended national security consequences of the legislation — after the Senate voted to override Obama’s veto.
Corker acknowledged that the Senate bore responsibility as well. But Cornyn was a bit more blunt.
“What’s so remarkable to me is the detachment of this White House from anything to do with the legislative process,” Cornyn, one of the leading backers of JASTA, told reporters on Wednesday. “They have very little contact or credibility, not just with Republicans but with Democrats.
Cornyn continued: “So they were basically missing in action during this whole process. It’s a little late once a bill passes by unanimous consent in both houses then to state your concerns.”
The fallout over JASTA was emblematic of the tense relationship that Obama, never known for being chummy with lawmakers, had with Capitol Hill — particularly during Republican control. Obama’s elevation of a former aide to Schumer who’s deeply respected in Congress, Katie Fallon, as his top legislative aide helped ease that relationship.
But Fallon left the White House in January, and her departure was acknowledged inside the White House as a sign that the administration was basically done thinking about Congress.
Schumer, who led efforts to push the bill through Congress with Cornyn, laid out his view why Congress and the Obama administration diverged so sharply on JASTA.
“Look, what I have found on issues like this is, the White House and the executive branch is far more interested in diplomatic considerations,” he said on Wednesday. “We’re more interested in the families and in justice. I think our administration was just dead wrong on this issue.”
Later Wednesday, Schumer insisted he had not heard Earnest’s remarks: “I’m not gonna comment.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the leading supporters of JASTA, said he was “surprised” at the White House’s pointed response Wednesday to the override vote.
“Let’s remember, with all due respect — and I said this to one of the senior White House officials last night — they were late to this game,” Blumenthal said. Asked why there was so little direct involvement, he responded: “I have no idea. I don’t know enough about the way the White House works.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said earlier this week that he shared “concerns,” but “it doesn’t seem important enough to this administration for the president to lift a finger.”
Privately, some Democrats fumed at what they perceived as an overreaction from the White House.
“I thought all Democrats could agree that Republicans’ failure to confirm Merrick Garland was the most embarrassing thing the Senate had done,” one senior Democratic aide said. “But if the White House wants to blow this out of proportion, that’s their choice.”
Though the legislation needed two-thirds support in both chambers to successfully override Obama’s veto, the final tally wasn’t even close: 97-1 in the Senate, and 348-77 in the House, with one House lawmaker voting present.
Perhaps the best vote-counter in Congress, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said last week the White House had not asked her to get involved to press the Obama administration’s case. She, too, ultimately sided against Obama, voting to override his veto.
Obama’s lone JASTA ally in the Senate was retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whom the president spoke with privately earlier this week to urge him to sustain his veto.
“You’ve got to give some credit to Harry Reid. He showed some courage,” Earnest said Wednesday. “The same can’t be said for the other 97 members of the Senate who voted today.”
Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.