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Momentum slows for Saudi-9/11 legislation

Greg Nash

Legislation that could allow victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue Saudi Arabia encountered significant obstacles on Tuesday despite the willingness of some Democrats to defy President Obama.

Momentum for the bill slowed dramatically when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a co-sponsor of the legislation, announced that he had placed a hold on it. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), meanwhile, publicly expressed doubts about the bill, dimming its chances in the House.

{mosads}The Republican moves could provide vital help for the Obama administration, which has struggled to convince Democrats that the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act could jeopardize U.S. sovereign immunity claims and damage relations with a critical Middle Eastern ally.  

Multiple Democrats signaled Tuesday that they are ready to support the bill despite strong opposition from their president.

“I support it, and most everyone in the caucus supports it,” Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. “I think we should move forward on this legislation.” 

Asked how he could get Obama to support the bill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) appeared to shrug off the question, telling reporters, “I don’t know if he’ll be on board.” 

“These families lost loved ones through terrorism. If the Saudis were complicit — if the Saudi government was complicit in that terrorism — they should pay the price,” he said.

“I don’t know what [Obama’s] analysis is based on, but I think this is an appropriate change in the law,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said.

With Senate Democrats holding firm, the White House did something unusual: It lavished praise on congressional Republicans.

“I was gratified to see Speaker Ryan indicate his shared concern about the potential unintended consequences of this bill,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

“We’re obviously gratified that there are other Republicans who have taken a close look at this legislation.”

The gamesmanship elevated a relatively obscure bill — which passed without much notice through the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously in January — into a national story just before Obama was set to touch down in Riyadh for a two-day meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab leaders. 

The White House has billed the trip as an opportunity to shore up U.S. partners in the fight against extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda, and also to ease tensions that were created during nuclear negotiations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said concerns over the terrorism legislation have been brewing for some time. He said both he and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the committee’s chairman, have spoken with Saudi Arabia about the proposal.

“This is not something that is brand new to me,” Cardin told The Hill. “We’re looking for ways that we can accommodate the concerns that the administration has raised but understanding that there are Americans entitled to relief.”  

Victims of the 9/11 attacks have previously attempted to bring legal cases against the Saudi government, alleging that it supported the al Qaeda hijackers. But the charges have gone nowhere, and the question of whether the Saudi government can be held liable has been caught up in the courts for years. 

The bill would essentially overrule those court determinations and allow victims of terror on U.S. soil or surviving family members to bring lawsuits against nation-states for activities supporting terrorism. 

The legislation has wide bipartisan support, ranging from Schumer to No. 2 Senate Republican John Conryn (Texas), as well as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a presidential candidate.

A previous version of the bill passed the Senate in later 2014 but died in the House. 

On Tuesday, Graham raised concerns about whether lawmakers might unwittingly expose the U.S. to lawsuits from foreigners accusing Washington of supporting terrorism. 

“Anything we do in this bill can be used against us later,” he told reporters in the basement of the Capitol.

Graham supported an initial version of the bill. But he said that changes made in the last week might expose the U.S. to legal attacks related to individual Americans acting without the government’s consent or militia groups receiving U.S. assistance.

“So let’s say there’s a situation where you’ve got an American in a consulate or an embassy that’s got their own grudge against a government,” Graham said. “We want to make sure that we’re not liable for that.”

Supporters of the legislation downplayed the debate, saying it should not be interpreted as a sign of Republican division. 

“I mean we’re having an ongoing conversation with Sen. Graham,” Cornyn told reporters. “We’re willing to work with him and try to get to a resolution of it. I think once he sees how narrow it is — and I think he certainly agrees with our goal—but this just a normal part of the process, senators having questions.” 

Cornyn added that Graham is the only remaining hold and said the Senate could potentially pass the legislation through unanimous consent or a voice vote. 

House lawmakers are waiting for the Senate to hammer out the details first, before moving ahead with a version introduced by Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) last November. 

“It is our intention to take up the version of the bill that is passed by the Senate,” a House Judiciary Committee aide told The Hill in an email. 

Ryan, fresh off a Middle East trip that included a meeting with the Saudi king, declined to take a firm position on the bill Tuesday but suggested the current version could run into problems in the lower chamber.

“I think we need to review it to make sure we are not making mistakes with our allies and that we’re not catching people in this that shouldn’t be caught up in this,” he said.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also sidestepped questions about the legislation, telling reporters he had no announcement to make. 

“He’s being cautious like every majority leader is,” said Cornyn. “I’m going to encourage him, if we can get Sen. Graham’s concerns resolved, to try to bring it to the floor.” 

There has been no definitive proof that Saudi Arabia was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and 28 classified pages of Congress’s joint inquiry into 9/11 intelligence are believed to indicate some level of government involvement. 

Some lawmakers who have read the pages say they show the Saudi government’s complicity ahead of the attacks and should be made public. Senior Saudi leaders have said the pages are less damning than many suspect and that they should be declassified to put the matter to rest. 

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is evaluating whether the pages’ release will harm U.S. national security and is “about to complete that process,” Obama said in an interview with CBS News. 

Jordan Fabian contributed.

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Corker Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Harry Reid Kirsten Gillibrand Lindsey Graham Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Saudi Arabia Ted Cruz
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