Congress moved quickly Wednesday to override President Barack Obama's veto of a measure allowing victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia -- handing Obama the first such rebuke of his presidency.
As expected, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to override the veto, with only Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid siding with the administration. The House followed hours later, voting 348-77 to reject the veto and turn the measure into law.
A White House spokesman described the earlier vote as "the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done" in more than three decades.
Though support for the measure was both overwhelming and bipartisan, the decision split Maryland's congressional delegation. Three members -- Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County -- all voted to sustain Obama's veto.
"I am concerned that the benefits of this bill would be overwhelmed by its potential risks to America’s foreign interests," Cummings said in a statement. "The families of Americans lost on 9/11 deserve justice, which is why I am hopeful that Congress will continue to review this issue and fine tune this legislation to balance the foreign and domestic interests of the American people.”
Ruppersberger agreed and said he hopes Congress will return to the issue. He noted that military and intelligence officials said they believe the measure will set a "dangerous precedent."
"The 9-11 victims and their families deserve relief, but the benefits of this bill could unfortunately endanger more American lives," he said in a statement.
Edwards said she understood the families' desire to "rightfully pursue justice.” But, she said, she voted to sustain the veto "in hopes of allowing additional time for Congress and the administration to write a more carefully crafted measure that would not place service members, diplomats and other Americans at risk."
The law will allow victims and their families to file litigation in federal court against another nation if it is believed to have played a role in terrorism that kills Americans. In this case, the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have sought to sue Saudi Arabia for years over allegations that the government funded groups involved with terrorism.
Obama officials are concerned the legislation will lead to reciprocal action in other countries, ultimately limiting the scope of immunity U.S. diplomats and service members enjoy overseas.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been closely watched in the days leading up to the vote because he had not offered his position. He announced Wednesday morning that he could not stand in the way of families who have lobbied for the ability to sue.
"After careful consideration of President Obama's veto, I believe that the risks of shielding the perpetrators of terrorism from justice are greater than the risks this legislation may pose to America's presence around the world," Cardin said in a statement.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Maryland Democrat, also voted to override the veto.