Top Republicans Open to Changing JASTA After Override

Top Republicans Open to Changing JASTA After Override
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The top two Republicans in Congress said they are open to altering legislation that allows lawsuits against foreign governments that sponsor terrorism — a stance expressed less than 24 hours after lawmakers voted to override President Obama’s veto of the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday there might be “unintended ramifications” from the legislation, and he and Speaker Paul Ryan both suggested an openness to re-examining or altering the legislation in the post-election congressional period.

Obama criticized Congress for overriding his veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, the first time during his presidency that lawmakers have successfully taken such action. He argued that beyond complex foreign policy implications, the law could expose American citizens to retaliation abroad.

Ryan said Thursday he shares those concerns, but Congress undid the veto anyway to give 9/11 victims the opportunity to sue Saudi Arabia over allegations its government was involved in the terror attacks. The speaker said he is open to finding changes later this year to assuage concerns about retaliation.

“We want to make sure that the 9/11 victims and their families have their day in court,” Ryan said. “At the same time, I would like to think there may be some work to be done to protect our service members overseas from any kind of … legal ensnarements that could occur, any kind of retribution.

“I'd like to think that there's a way we could fix [the law] so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims.”

McConnell agreed that it could be “worth further discussing” changes to the legislation, but he laid the blame on Obama and the White House for not engaging lawmakers sooner on the long-term ramifications: “I told the president the other day that this was an example of an issue we should have talked about much earlier.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a co-author of the legislation who is poised to become the Democratic leader in the next Congress, waved aside the need to revisit it after the election. A group of 28 senators sent him and fellow sponsor John Cornyn a letter outlining their desire to examine some changes, but Schumer pointed out Thursday that every one of them voted to override the president’s veto.

“Obviously they figured it’s better to have the bill than not,” he said. “I’m willing to look at any proposal they make, but not any that hurts the families."

Most members of Congress departed Washington Wednesday night after overriding the veto and passing an agreement to fund the government into the second week of December.

They won’t return until after the election and it could be a jam-packed lame-duck session. Along with potential changes to JASTA, the two parties will have to devise a strategy to fund the government before the December deadline, and there is speculation that the lame duck could be a time for major legislative action, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to criminal justice reform.

Ryan said Thursday House Republicans are making progress on criminal justice reform – 11 bills have passed the House Judiciary Committee, and leaders are working to gauge support among rank-and-file members before bringing the bills to the floor. He is optimistic that could still happen this year. McConnell, however, threw ice water on that prospect despite a bipartisan measure passing the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.

“It’s very divisive in my conference,” he said of the efforts to roll back some mandatory minimum sentences, among other changes.  “I’ve got very, very smart, capable people -- without regard to ideology -- who have different views on that issue.” McConnell added that he doubts “whether we can take up something that controversial with that amount of limited time available."

Before those issues hit, however, lawmakers are focused squarely on Election Day, with nearly six weeks to campaign uninterrupted by Capitol business. Schumer expressed confidence in Democrats’ ability to retake the Senate – where Republicans hold a four-seat majority but are defending a number of seats in purple states – while McConnell was more cautious.

“We’ve got knock-down, drag-out, sort of like a knife-fight-in-a-phone-booth” races, McConnell said, describing the number of swing states with GOP incumbents in competitive elections.

As for the House, Ryan said he doesn’t like the thought of losing any seats, but noted he’d like to keep a strong majority, which is currently the GOP’s largest since the Great Depression. His Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, didn’t necessarily suggest the Democrats could win back control of the lower chamber but said she thought the conditions could be there for sweeping Democratic victories. 

“You make your own wave,” Pelosi said. "We have the candidates. We have the enthusiasm. We have outraised in terms of resources the Republicans over and over again. And I feel very confident that the makings of a wave are there.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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