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In A First For Obama, Senate Overturns Presidential Veto On Sept. 11 Bill


It was quite a day on Capitol Hill. First Congress voted to override a veto by President Obama for the first time in his presidency, then a bill to keep the government funded which had lawmakers deadlocked for weeks cleared the Senate. With us to talk about today's burst of activity as NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. Hi, Ailsa.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with this veto override vote. Remind us what's in the bill.

CHANG: So it's a measure that would allow families of 9/11 victims to be able to sue Saudi Arabia for allegedly aiding and abetting the terrorism attacks. Actually under the bill, any citizen would be able to sue any country for allegedly aiding any terrorism attack on U.S. soil. But the bill was aimed at giving 9/11 families in particular a day in court. So as you can imagine, this was not a bill any member of Congress relished voting against.

SHAPIRO: And why was the president so adamantly against this bill?

CHANG: For a lot of reasons. I mean one main reason is that there is a fear the bill would lead to retaliatory litigation, that other countries might be encouraged to drag U.S. government officials or even members of the military into foreign courts based on allegations that those Americans somehow aided and abetted terrorism abroad.

And given that the U.S. has such a presence all over the globe and so many assets all over the globe, there's a fear that we would be exposing ourselves to a potential flood of litigation. A number of lawmakers echo this same concern, for example, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: We've got diplomats and soldiers and American businesspeople all over the world, so we need to think long and hard about making sure we don't open up Pandora's box to our own people.

SHAPIRO: And yet after that warning, Graham voted to override the president's veto along with nearly the entire Senate.

CHANG: That is absolutely right. In fact there were so many senators who voted to keep the bill alive today but who were literally talking about their serious concerns about the bill as they were walking into the chamber. More than two dozen senators from both parties actually signed a letter asking that changes be made to the bill even though it's already become law now.

One suggestion was to modify the bill so it only allows claims involving the 9/11 attacks. But Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who was one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said he was not interested in that.

CHUCK SCHUMER: We'll look at anything, but we're not going to do anything that harms the bill. And so one idea for instance was limit it to 9/11. Well, that gives everyone, every country, including Saudi Arabia, a green light to do it in the future. So that's unacceptable.

CHANG: And I take Schumer to mean if there's another attack here in the U.S. akin to 9/11, the victims then might not have any recourse to sue whatever country's involved in that attack. But it's not clear there will be any appetite to take up this issue again after the election, so we could be done here.

SHAPIRO: Well, one thing Congress will definitely have to do after the election is keep the government funded into next year. The Senate today cleared a bill that would keep the government open until December. How did that finally get through?

CHANG: It got through after working through weeks of logjams. Now we have a bill to keep the government open through December 9. It will provide funds to fight the Zika virus without preventing any of those funds from going to Planned Parenthood. That had been an issue at one point.

And another issue that Democrats were pushing was aid for the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich. That was resolved just late yesterday. House leaders agreed to put Flint money in a separate bill related to water infrastructure. So at that point Democrats agreed they'd cooperate to move the government funding bill forward.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ailsa Chang, thanks very much.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.