The Republican Senate leader blames the White House for not engaging sooner with Congress.
By SEUNG MIN KIM and BURGESS EVERETT 09/29/16 12:47 PM EDT Updated 09/29/16 04:30 PM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that a new law allowing U.S. victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments may have “unintended ramifications,” despite Congress’s overwhelming vote this week to defy President Barack Obama’s veto of the legislation.
Though Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was easily overridden, many senators are seeking changes to the law later this year, particularly after gauging any international reaction. McConnell laid some fault at the hands of the White House, calling the battle over JASTA a “good example” of “failure to communicate early about the potential consequences” of a popular bill.
“I told the president the other day that this is an example of an issue that we should have talked about much earlier,” McConnell said Thursday. “It appears as if there may be some unintended ramifications of that and I do think it’s worth further discussing. But it was certainly not something that was going to be fixed this week.”
A spokesman said McConnell and Obama spoke on Monday, the same day the majority leader teed up a vote on the veto override. The vote in the Senate to reject Obama’s veto was 97-1, and 348-77 in the House.
Later Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also said the law could be revisited. "I would like to think there may be some work to be done to protect our service members overseas from any kind of legal ensnarement that occur, any kind of retribution," Ryan said at his weekly press conference Thursday. "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, which is what JASTA did do."
The White House lashed out at Congress for the veto override. Administration officials pointed out that some senators shared their concerns that the measure could backfire on the United States abroad, yet they still supported it. Nearly 30 senators have signed a letter asking the bill’s leading sponsors to address any unintended consequences of JASTA after it goes into effect.
“It’s hard to take at face value the suggestion that 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 servicemembers," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Thursday.
Obama also called the override a “political vote” and 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 at a CNN town hall. “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.”
Still, McConnell’s comments echoed complaints from Republicans and Democrats who said the White House did little to engage members of Congress with their concerns.
“Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were but no one had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships. And I think it was just a ball dropped,” McConnell said. “I hate to blame everything on him and I don’t, [but] it would have been helpful if we had a discussion about this much earlier than the last week.”
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the lead Democrat on the legislation, said on Thursday that he is willing to look at changes, but “not any that hurt the families.” He worked closely with families of 9/11 victims to craft the measure.
He also responded to the White House’s criticisms, saying: “It’s hardly political for me.”
“I’ve sat and worked with these families for five years. I feel their pain. Not close to the amount because I didn’t lose a loved one the way they did,” Schumer said. “But this is about justice. And I would say in a very partisan time, for any president — and this one in particular — to have only one veto override, that’s a darn good record.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the only member of the Senate who voted to sustain Obama’s veto, declined to comment about his vote. He also spoke privately with Obama earlier this week.