Bill Championed by Families of 9/11 Victims Headed for Likely Veto
September 10, 2016 Karoun Demirjian / The Washington Post
Congress passed a bill to allow families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to terrorism. The House passed the legislation by voice vote, with leaders calling it a "moral imperative" to allow victims' families to seek justice for the deaths of loved ones. The White House is in a difficult spot. Saudi Arabia has lobbied hard against the legislation, even threatening to start selling off US assets if the measure passes.
Bill Championed by Families of 9/11 Victims
Headed for likely Veto Showdown with the White House Karoun Demirjian / The Washington Post
(September 9, 2016) -- Congress on Friday sent President Obama a bill that would allow families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to terrorism, but advocates of the legislation worry it could be defeated by a presidential veto.
The House passed the legislation by voice vote, with leaders calling it a "moral imperative" to allow victims' families to seek justice for the deaths of loved ones as the country marks the 15th anniversary of the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and damaged the Pentagon.
But bill supporters are bracing for a veto fight with the White House, which argues the bill could harm the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia and establish a legal precedent that jeopardizes American officials overseas.
Advocates for the legislation are also warily eyeing the congressional calendar over fears the administration may try to pocket-veto the legislation if lawmakers leave Washington soon to focus on the election.
Victims' families who have long implored Congress to pass the bill are now pressuring lawmakers to stick around Washington to prevent a pocket veto, arguing they have enough support for a successful override vote.
"This is more important than campaigning," said Terry Strada, who lost her husband in the attacks and is national chair of the organization for victims' families that is bringing a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. "You can campaign after. You will never have a chance to pass [the bill] again. This is the priority."
Once the president officially receives the bill, he will have 10 days to veto the legislation or the bill automatically becomes law. But if Congress adjourns before the 10-day clock runs out, it could trigger a pocket veto -- a constitutional quirk that allows a president to defeat a legislative proposal by holding on to it until Congress is out of session.
The White House is in a difficult spot. While administration officials have strongly suggested the president should veto the bill, it would be a politically unpopular move that could fuel an emotional backlash and an uncomfortable debate in the weeks before Election Day.
A pocket veto could help the White House avoid some of the political fallout but would also probably prove controversial.
White House National Security Council Spokesman Ned Price on Friday declined to comment on whether the president will veto the bill.
The bill would allow courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in cases involving terrorist attacks on US soil. Saudi Arabia has lobbied hard against the legislation, even threatening to start selling off US assets if the measure passes.
The White House has threatened a veto on the rationale that it could put US diplomatic officials in a bad position if countries respond by similarly ignoring the established practice of granting immunity to foreign government representatives.
"This administration strongly continues to oppose this legislation, and, you know, we'll obviously begin conversations with the House about it," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in May when the Senate passed the bill.
Advocates for the legislation dispute the validity of the White House's arguments, pointing out that countries that have done nothing wrong and don't support terrorists have nothing to worry about.
Since the Senate passed the legislation in May by unanimous consent, the government has released a previously classified set of pages from a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that dealt with suspected connections between Saudi Arabia and the terrorists involved. Those pages did not significantly add to the information that had already been made public through other documents and reports.
But victims' families want to use the courts to further explore any ties between the 9/11 attackers and the Saudi government or Saudi officials.
While the House is scheduled to stay in session through September, the Senate could disband as early as the end of next week so that lawmakers can focus on their campaigns through Election Day, according to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who chairs the Senate Republicans' campaign operation.
A Senate GOP leadership aide said Friday that the Senate planned to hold pro forma sessions while Congress is out of town to prevent the White House from making a pocket veto or staging any other surprise moves.
But there is some dispute over whether pro forma sessions are enough to prevent the administration from attempting a pocket veto.
In late 2007, President George W. Bush claimed the right to pocket-veto a defense spending bill over the protests of congressional leaders. At the time, the House had adjourned for a holiday break and the Senate was holding pro forma sessions every few days -- a practice that has become standard to prevent the White House from making recess appointments.
Because the 9/11 bill started in the Senate, leaders there are confident the pro forma sessions will prevent anyone from arguing that Congress has legally adjourned, as defined by the Constitution.
Victims' families say they are pressuring the White House to back off its veto threat while also asking lawmakers to stay in town in case an override vote is needed.
"I don't believe they're going to let us down," Strada said. "I don't think they would have done all this work just to let it fall apart at the end."
Karoun Demirjian covers defense and foreign policy and was previously a correspondent based in the Post's bureau in Moscow, Russia. Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
(May 17, 2016) -- The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged support for terrorism, despite stiff opposition from the White House.
It is the second time the Senate has passed a version of the bill, which its co-authors -- Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- argue is important to clarify when courts should waive foreign officials' claims to immunity in cases involving terrorist acts on US soil.
"These courts are following what we believe is a nonsensical reading of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act," Schumer said Tuesday. "The fact that a foreign government may have aided and abetted terrorism is infuriating to the families if justice is not done."
But the measure has provoked controversy across the political spectrum, as politicians worry it could harm the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia and establish a precedent that could come back to bite American officials serving overseas.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) only recently lifted a hold against the legislation, after Schumer and Cornyn made changes to the bill to accommodate his concerns about its impact on US officials. With that agreement in hand, the Senate passed the bill unanimously on a voice vote Tuesday.
The bill now goes to the House, where Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has not indicated any support for the proposal.
But the biggest challenge to the bill may come from the White House, which hinted strongly last month that President Obama would veto it over concerns about sovereign immunity. Recent changes to the legislation did not go far enough because they "were not sufficient to prevent the longer-term unintended consequences that we are concerned about," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday.
Cornyn and Schumer have taken pains to stress that their bill is not specifically targeted at Saudi Arabia and that the kingdom has nothing to worry about if government officials were not complicit in funneling money to groups that supported al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attackers.
But Saudi Arabia has long been the focus of speculation concerning the attacks, particularly when it comes to the government's support for charities and organizations with links to terrorist groups.
Many senators have hinted that a classified 28-page section of a 2002 report from the House and Senate intelligence committees could substantiate that link. Cornyn on Tuesday repeated that the release of those pages "may well be instructive" in establishing Saudi responsibility for the terrorist attacks.
Why 28 Pages about 9/11 Are Causing Controversy
Renewed calls for the release of 28 pages of top secret documents related to the 9/11 attacks have turned attention to allegations that Saudi officials in some way supported the terrorists involved. (Adam Taylor, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
Saudi leaders have denied that the government played any role in the attacks. They have been watching the congressional debate nervously, and threatened last month to start selling off US investments if the legislation passes, according to reports.
Saudi Arabia holds up to $116.8 billion in US Treasury securities, according to figures released by the Treasury Department on Monday, making it the 13th largest holder of US debt. Officials said the release of the data was unrelated to the Sept. 11 bill pending in Congress.
Supporters of the bill were unmoved by Saudi Arabia's possibly selling their US asserts.
"Essentially what the Saudis will be doing by selling off their bonds is suffering a financial loss," Cornyn said. "They're not going to suffer a huge financial loss in order to try to make a point, I believe, so I don't consider it credible."
Saudi Arabian officials strongly object to the idea that plans to withdraw investments constitute a "threat," arguing it is what any person or country would do to protect their interests.
"I say you can warn. What has happened is that people are saying we threatened," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said on Monday in Geneva following a meeting with Secretary of State of John Kerry. "We said that a law like this is going to cause investor confidence to shrink. And so not just for Saudi Arabia, but for everybody."
Cornyn and Schumer also said they are not deterred by the threat of a White House veto.
"I would not vote to sustain a veto, and it's my guess that most of my colleagues would agree with that," said Schumer. He added that he thinks the Senate can "easily get the two-thirds" vote to override a veto.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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