The House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday that would allow 9/11 families to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for their complicity in the 9/11 attacks. The vote was unanimous.
The controversial measure is opposed by the White House, which believes it will adversely affect our relations with the kingdom. The Saudis have threatened to sell off billions in American assets if the bill becomes law.
The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously in May, now heads to President Obama’s desk, where its future is uncertain.
The White House has hinted strongly it will veto the measure. Obama has lobbied fiercely against it, arguing it could both strain relations with Saudi Arabia and lead to retaliatory legislation overseas against U.S. citizens.
But lingering suspicion over Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 attacks and pressure from victims’ families made the bill a popular bipartisan offering on Capitol Hill.
The bill’s popularity puts the president in a delicate position. Supporters are hoping Obama will be leery of expending political capital he desperately needs during the lame-duck session.
The president is hoping lawmakers will pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a criminal justice reform measure and confirm Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
If Obama does choose to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, supporters believe that they have the two-thirds majority needed to override him — a first during his presidency.
“I think we easily get the two-thirds override if the president should veto,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, said when the bill cleared the upper chamber in the spring.
But many on Capitol Hill do not believe that the veto is a done deal. The White House has not issued an official position on the bill and spokesmen have been careful with their language, stopping short of issuing a full veto threat.
“We have serious concerns with the bill as written,” a White House official said Wednesday.
“We believe there needs to be more careful consideration of the potential unintended consequences of its enactment before the House considers the legislation,” the official said. “We would welcome opportunities to further engage with the Congress on that discussion.”
The president has 10 days to either sign or reject the legislation before it becomes law.
Supporters of the legislation 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,” Schumer said in a statement Wednesday.
The amount of assets the Saudis are threatening to sell is significant:
Saudi Arabia threatened to sell up to $750 billion worth of US assets held by the Kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be sued over 9/11, reports The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti.
Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, personally passed on the message last month during a trip to Washington, according to The Times.
Although both chambers passed the measure unanimously, overriding the president’s expected veto may be a different story. This is especially true in the Senate, where the White House could apply a lot of pressure to Democrat senators to prevent the two-thirds majority needed to overturn the veto. The argument that enacting the legislation would lead to a rupture with a major ally — not to mention make a Democratic president look bad — could compel some Democrats to uphold the veto.
But the counter argument — that there is a moral imperative to give the families justice — is a powerful one and will be hard for the White House to answer.