House to vote Friday on bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits against Saudi Arabia

House to vote Friday on bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits against Saudi Arabia
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The House is set to vote Friday on a controversial bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. 

The legislation, which the Senate approved unanimously in May, is expected to pass the House and head to President Obama’s desk.

But the president has already signaled that he would veto the measure, which is fiercely opposed by the Saudi Arabian government and leading national security figures in both parties. 

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Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanIs Joe Biden finished? Krystal Ball previews fifth Democratic debate Former Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled MORE (R-Wis.) voiced reservations about the bill’s approach in April, saying it needed to be reviewed “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.” 

Critics argue that the bill would undermine an important relationship with Saudi Arabia and open the door for other nations to pass similar policies that would expose the U.S. to costly lawsuits in foreign courts. 

But lawmakers are under pressure to act from victims’ families as the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approaches and suspicion lingers that Saudi Arabia was in some way supportive of that day’s terrorist attacks. 

Despite Obama’s opposition, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE came out in support of the bill in April, just days before the New York presidential primary.

Rejecting the legislation could put the president at risk of suffering a veto override supported by members of his own party, something that has never before happened during his time in the White House.

“Were the president to veto it, I would vote to override the veto,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), one of the 29 Democratic co-sponsors of the bill. “The administration has concerns. I’m hoping that we can persuade them to overcome those concerns.”

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Original sponsors of the Senate version of the bill included a handful of high-powered Democrats, including Sens. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' 2020 Republicans accuse Schumer of snubbing legislation Schumer: Leadership trying to work out competing surprise medical bill measures MORE (N.Y.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping GOP senator wants Violence Against Women Act passage by year end MORE (Calif.).

Supporters say the legislation’s unanimous passage in the Senate suggests the bill will not only clear the House by a wide margin but also attract the two-thirds support needed to override a veto.

“I think the votes will be there to override it,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in the House.

“I think we easily get the two-thirds override if the president should veto,” Schumer said when the Senate version passed in the spring.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would change U.S. law to allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue countries suspected of supporting those activities.

Right now, victims of attacks are permitted to sue countries designated as sponsors of terrorism, like Iran, but not countries without the designation. 

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia. Critics have long suspected that the kingdom’s government may have either directly or indirectly supported the attacks. 

Congress in July released 28 previously secret pages detailing suspicious Saudi ties to the 9/11 hijackers, but the report failed to include a smoking gun definitively linking the kingdom to the terrorist attacks. House Intelligence Committee leaders have cautioned that the findings were preliminary. 

Saudi officials have for years denied that their government had any role in plotting the attacks. The 9/11 Commission report said that neither the Saudi government “as an institution” nor its senior officials funded the attackers.

But supporters of the bill see it as a moral imperative.

“The victims of 9-11 and other terrorist attacks on US soil have suffered much pain and heartache, but they should not be denied justice, and so, I am telling the House: pass this bill,” Schumer said in a statement Wednesday.

“I think it’s important the week of 9/11 that Congress go on record so that we can send a statement to the world,” King said. 

“Whether or not they were involved in 9/11 — and I’m not saying they were — there was too much tacit support by people in high-ranking positions in the Saudi government towards the Islamist movement. They were playing both sides for too long.”

The White House has warned that the legislation would “change longstanding international law regarding sovereign immunity,” according to spokesman Josh Earnest, potentially endangering American travelers, diplomats and military service members. 

King rejected those concerns, calling the bill “narrowly drawn.”

A last-minute edit in the Senate version of the bill allows the Justice and State departments to put a stay on any litigation by certifying to a judge that the United States is “engaged in good-faith discussions with the foreign-state defendant concerning the resolution of claims against the foreign state.”

The edit — pilloried by some supporters of the original text — appears in the House version of the legislation.