Saudi-9/11 bill breezes through Senate over Obama veto threat

Saudi-9/11 bill breezes through Senate over Obama veto threat
© Getty Images

The Senate rebuked President Obama in stunning fashion on Tuesday, unanimously approving legislation that would allow the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.

The upper chamber’s surprise approval of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act comes despite a White House veto threat. It sends the legislation to the House, which has pledged to examine it this summer.

ADVERTISEMENT
The showdown will pit the upper chamber against Obama as both sides seek to win over Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE. The Wisconsin Republican has appeared wary of the bill, and his comments about its potential for unintended consequences echo the White House’s. 

Supporters, however, feel the political wind at their backs. They argue the Senate’s action provides momentum as they make their case to House leadership.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE (D-N.Y) and Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Air Force makes criminal reporting changes after Texas massacre We need a better pathway for allowing civilians to move guns across state lines MORE (R-Texas), would allow victims of terror attacks on U.S. soil or surviving family members to bring lawsuits against nation-states for activities supporting terrorism.

Schumer, who is expected to be the next Senate Democratic leader, appeared to invite a fight with the White House, predicting the bill’s supporters could “easily” get the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.

“We don’t think their arguments stand up,” he said. “Look, I generally agree with the administration, but when I disagree, so be it.”

Press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the White House would first focus efforts on the House. 

“Before we get to the question of a veto override, there’s a question about whether or not this legislation will pass the House,” he told reporters. “There are Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives that have raised concerns about the bill in the same way that the administration has.”

The Senate approved the bill after Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-S.C.) lifted a hold on the legislation imposed because of concerns it would open up the U.S. to lawsuits from foreigners who accuse Washington of supporting terrorism.

Schumer and Cornyn said they are talking with House leadership and their staffs to try to get them to take up the legislation, but neither offered much insight into their conversations.

First, the bill would have to get through the House Judiciary Committee. The panel is planning to hold a hearing on the bill “in the near future,” a committee aide said.

Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteRosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week Conservative pressure on Sessions grows Clock ticking down on NSA surveillance powers MORE (R-Va.) “definitely supports it,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a sponsor of the House bill.

“His staff supports it, and we’ll try to move as quickly as we can.”

King declined, however, to predict how many votes the legislation would receive.

“First thing’s first. First we got to get it on the calendar,” he said.

The legislation could hang in limbo for at least another month because lawmakers have limited legislative time and are awaiting a decision on declassifying more than two dozen pages of a 2002 congressional inquiry into 9/11.

If those pages are released, their contents could prompt public outrage and provoke retribution from Capitol Hill. They are believed to detail suspected links between the Saudi government and the al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked U.S. planes for the attacks.

“The plaintiffs are looking for the information, obviously,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), an advocate of releasing the pages, told The Hill on Tuesday. “I think it would be helpful.”

But action in the House could run into trouble with the Speaker’s office.

Ryan has declined to explicitly endorse or oppose the legislation. Asked about the Senate’s actions, his aides referred back to his comments last month in which he seemed skeptical.

“I think we need to look at it,” Ryan told reporters at the time. “I think we need to review it to make sure we are not making mistakes with our allies and we’re not catching people in this that shouldn’t be caught up in this.”

The comments suggested a rare area of agreement between GOP leadership and the White House, which has struggled to convince Democrats that the legislation could damage national security.

On Tuesday, Earnest reiterated Obama’s opposition to the bill, which he warned could undermine broader claims of sovereign immunity.

“Given the concerns we have expressed, it’s difficult to imagine the president signing this legislation,” Earnest said.

“This legislation would change longstanding international law regarding sovereign immunity, and the president of the United States continues to harbor serious concerns” about how it could backfire on Americans, the White House spokesman added.

The legislation has also drawn criticism from the Saudi government. Top Saudi officials are reportedly threatening to sell off billions of dollars in U.S. assets if Congress passes the bill.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has pushed back against characterizations that the kingdom is trying to bully Congress, but he cautioned against the effect of the legislation internationally.

“We said that a law like this is going to cause investor confidence to shrink,” Jubeir said in Geneva this month, speaking after a meeting with Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLobbying world Kerry: Trump not pursuing 'smart' or 'clever' plan on North Korea Tillerson will not send high-ranking delegation to India with Ivanka Trump: report MORE. “And not just for Saudi Arabia, but for everybody.”

Lawmakers on Tuesday pressed back against criticism that the legislation targets Saudi Arabia.

“Look, if the Saudis did not participate in this terrorism, they have nothing to fear about going to court,” Schumer said. “If they did, they should be held accountable.”

“It’s going into court,” echoed Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s not a fait accompli. It’s going into court.”

Jordan Fabian contributed.