Congress Likely to Pass Bill Allowing 9/11 Victims to Sue Saudi Arabia

The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote this week on Senate-passed legislation that would allow families of the Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for liability in the attacks.

Rep. Peter King of New York, the House sponsor of the measure, said in an interview that the House is likely to vote on Friday and send the measure to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Saudi Arabia objects to the bill, S. 2040, and the White House has said it’s “strongly opposed.” A White House official said Wednesday that Obama’s opposition to the bill remains steadfast even as it appears to being moving toward passage.

If the House passes the measure by an overwhelming margin and Obama vetoes it, it could set up the first successful veto override of his administration.

An aide to the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer, said that Democrats have agreed to go along with a Friday vote, indicating they don’t intend to impede the measure. The bill passed the Senate in May by voice vote, indicating it has wide bipartisan support in that chamber. A Friday vote means that passage would come a few days ahead of the 15th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The legislation “is a long-overdue, responsible and balanced fix to a law that has extended too large a shield to foreign actors who finance and enable terrorism on a massive scale,” Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

Earlier Tuesday, Speaker Paul Ryan declined to discuss plans for a vote on the measure.

Sovereign Immunity

The White House has said it opposes the bill because of potential threats against U.S. service members and diplomats abroad if the international principle of sovereign immunity is weakened. But a Senate Democratic aide says that the measure likely has enough congressional support to override a veto.

House Speaker Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan

That sets up a potentially complicated choice for Obama, who would have to choose between roiling an already fragile partnership with Saudi Arabia or allowing Republicans to overturn one of his vetoes for the first time.

The administration has serious concerns about the bill’s unintended consequences, but would be willing to work with Congress to address those before a vote, according to a White House official. Obama will return to Washington Friday morning after a week-long visit to China and Laos.

Relatives of some of those who died in the terror attacks want Congress to create a legal path to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the role some Saudis played in the attacks.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the attacks were Saudi Arabia citizens. Long-classified portions of a congressional inquiry into the attacks that were released in July found that the hijackers may have had assistance from Saudis connected to the government in Riyadh. The report, written in 2002, was not conclusive, and the Saudi government has said there is no evidence that the U.S. ally was involved in the attacks.

“This has been a long time coming, and the families have been through a lot. It’s gratifying,” said King.

‘Wake-Up Call’

“It’s also a wake-up call to the Saudis. It’s sort of pushing back the Saudi lobbyists who are spending a lot of time on the Hill,” King added.

The bill would permit civil claims against foreign officials and states for terrorist acts that occur within the U.S. That would enable courts to impose liability and assess financial punishments.

But some opponents say that would infringe on Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty. And others fear Saudi Arabia may follow through on threats it reportedly made earlier this year to sell off its holdings of U.S. Treasury debt and other assets in the U.S.

In April, Ryan said of the bill, “We need to make sure we are not making mistakes with our allies.”