Policy

Bill Allowing Lawsuits for Terrorist Attacks Passes Senate

The measure has implications for families affected by the 9/11 attacks

Names of victims carved at the Ground Zero memorial at the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attacks moved one step closer Tuesday to being able to sue the Saudi government.  

The Senate passed a bill by voice vote allowing American citizens to sue foreign governments believed to be linked to terror attacks on U.S. soil. The Saudi government has also threatened retaliation if the bill becomes law.  

“If the Saudis did not participate in this terrorism, they have nothing to fear from going to court,” New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer said at a news conference following the bill's passage. "If they did, they should be held accountable. It’s that simple.”  

Related: Bipartisan Push on to Oppose 9/11 Bill Schumer, the Senate's third highest-ranking Democrat, worked with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, on the bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Schumer was also confident that two-thirds of the Senate would be able to override any presidential veto.  

The bill responds to concerns of some Americans, including former members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the Saudi government, at mid or low levels, may have known something in advance about the hijack attacks on New York and Washington that killed more than 3,000 people.  

The Saudis deny having anything to do with 9/11.  

The legislation has raised concerns about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relations . White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last month  the bill could result in other countries crafting legislation targeted at the U.S.  

On Tuesday, Earnest said the administration is willing to consider a compromise to fix parts of the measure that could put the federal government at risk of similar suits in other countries.  

"Most countries around the world don't have the sophisticated justice system that we do, so I don't think that's likely to happen," Cornyn countered. He later added, "I don't think the United States has any fear from similar standards being applied."  

The Saudi government has threatened to sell $750 billion in U.S. assets in response to the bill, but Cornyn dubbed that a "hollow threat."  

"It hurts them a lot more than it hurts us," Schumer added.  

Ten family members involved in a related lawsuit issued a joint statement praising the Senate's action, saying the legislation "promises us the truth, accountability and a strong warning that the United States finally will stand behind its promise of justice. "  

The bill now heads to the House, where Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin has said he would like it to move through the committee process before he makes a decision on the legislation.  

Cornyn and Schumer said they would be talking to House leadership in their respective parties urging them to expedite consideration for this legislation.  

The senators have been working to assuage concerns about the bill, specifically from one of the Senate's more hawkish members. South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham had placed a hold on the measure, but changes ensuring that a nation-state would not be liable unless it was the "proximate cause" of the terrorist act led him to lift his hold.   

Rachel Oswald and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .

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