WASHINGTON — An overwhelming majority in Congress on Wednesday overturned President Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role in the plot, the first successful override vote of his presidency.
The 9/11 override is a remarkable yet complicated bipartisan rebuttal, even as some of its supporters conceded that they did not fully support the legislation they had just voted for. Mr. Obama and his allies vowed to find a way to tweak the legislation later.
In recent days, Mr. Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all wrote letters to Congress warning of the dangers of overriding the veto.
The law “could be devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members,” Mr. Obama wrote, “and there is no doubt that the consequences could be equally significant for our foreign affairs and intelligence communities.” The White House and some lawmakers were already plotting how they could weaken the law in the near future.
Yet most of Mr. Obama’s greatest allies on Capitol Hill, who have labored for nearly eight years to stop most bills he opposes from even crossing his desk, turned against him, joining Republicans in the remonstrance.
“This is a decision I do not take lightly,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and one of the authors of this legislation. “This bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker, because it would allow the victims of 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice, finally giving them a legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of the terrorist attack that took from them the lives of their loved ones.”
Only one senator, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, sided with the president as 97 others voted Wednesday to override. In the House, the veto override was approved a few hours later, 348 to 77.
The bill succeeded not with significant congressional debate or intense pressure from voters, but rather through the sheer will of the victims’ families, who seized on the 15th anniversary of the attack and an election year to lean on members of Congress. That effort was aided by the waning patience of lawmakers with the kingdom in recent years.
The Senate vote also represents another White House miscalculation on Capitol Hill, where it was once again slow to pressure members and to see the cracks in its firewall against the bill.
Further, the veto override, while thrilling to many Republicans, came on a bill that was far from the Republicans’ priorities of unraveling the health care law and pushing back on government regulations. Nor was it a measure they had hoped to secure with the president’s help, like overhauling the tax code or passing a major trade agreement.