WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House saw it coming, but still it stung.
When President Barack Obama was hit with the first veto override of his presidency on Wednesday, it landed as a clear reminder of his dwindling political influence, years of confounding relationships with Congress and shaky prospects for the few legislative priorities he has left. The fiercely competitive president has said he intends to keep working with Congress until the final buzzer sounds in January, but it’s not clear how much juice he’ll have left.
Only one of his 44 fellow Democrats in the Senate — Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — stood by Obama to uphold his veto of a piece of Sept. 11 legislation. Every Republican voted to override. The Republican-led House followed suit — eagerly exceeding the two-thirds threshold necessary to push the legislation into law over the president’s objections.
It was, perhaps, an unavoidable turn of events. No modern president has made it through two full terms without Congress overriding at least one of his vetoes. Obama’s record measures up well compared to his two predecessors. George W. Bush suffered four and Bill Clinton two.
It might also be expected that if an override was coming it would happen now, at the tail end of a term, just weeks ahead of the election, when the political interests of the soon-to-be retiring president and the still-in-the-game lawmakers are at their widest.
Still, the White House was ruffled by the public rebuke.
When a reporter noted the 97-1 vote was the widest margin for an override vote since 1983, White House spokesman Josh Earnest retorted: “I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983.”
Obama delivered a more measured, but still harsh, assessment.
“It was basically a political vote,” Obama told CNN, not sparing Democrats from his critique. “Sometimes you have to do what’s hard. And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard. … But I didn’t expect it.”
Few would have expected this public display of party divisions and hot-headed hyperbole over this legislation. The long-stalled bill, which allows the families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for the kingdom’s alleged backing of the attackers, has long flown under the radar, kept alive by a committed group of families, despite firm opposition from the Saudi government and many in the national security establishment.
The families found bipartisan backers in Congress and a moment this fall. The Senate passed the bill in May and the House followed on Sept. 9, two days before the 15th anniversary of the 2001 attacks and a little more than a week before two new bombing plots in the New York and New Jersey area.
Lawmakers found themselves faced with the choice of siding with Saudi Arabia or the sympathetic and organized group of Sept. 11 families. They overwhelmingly sided with the families.
Doing so meant ignoring dire warnings from a president whose popularity has only inched up as he nears his term. It also meant rebuffing top national security officials, who argued that the legislation will set a dangerous precedent that could endanger military personnel and diplomats serving overseas.
Democrats said the override votes weren’t personal. Some did revive an oft-repeated complaint about Obama’s approach to dealing with Congress. Lawmakers and aides described the White House lobbying effort as insufficient. Although several Democrats and Republicans publicly acknowledged problems with the legislation, the White House appeared unwilling or unable to broker changes.
“This whole thing just kind of continued on with no real involvement as if somehow through osmosis this thing was going to die of its own weight,” said Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, who outlined his “tremendous reservations” with the legislation, but voted to override Obama’s veto anyway.
The White House dismissed criticism from Corker as posturing. Officials said they saw the politics clearly early and had little hope for persuading lawmakers to take a tough vote in an election year.
Obama has much higher hopes for persuading them to take a tough vote after the election. His top priority of the lame-duck session is his Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, a legacy-making agreement that has taken a beating amid campaign-year complaints about globalization. The deal needs support from both Democrats and Republicans to pass.
The White House has cast the trade deal as a national-security imperative and promised a full-court press. But officials said the override had little impact on that effort and was not a grim sign for its chances.
“Despite the rhetoric on the campaign trail, the American people support expanding trade and agree with the president that high-standards trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are good for our country,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, noting that last year the White House successfully pushed a related trade measure through. Members “have long records of supporting expanding trade,” he said.
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