A Senate bill that would allow families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government has achieved a rare Washington distinction, by uniting the Obama administration and some of its fiercest GOP critics.
President Barack Obama and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are rallying to kill the bipartisan plan that would make it possible for American citizens to sue foreign governments believed to be linked to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said the plan should be reviewed through regular order before decisions are made about advancing the measure.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest warned the legislation could lead other countries to craft even broader versions that could do significant harm to the U.S. government.
“It certainly is plausible … that that other countries when they’re implementing these laws would not tailor them so specifically,” Earnest said. “And that does open up the United States to a unique degree of risk, and putting our country, our taxpayers, our service members and our diplomats in legal jeopardy in that way is contrary to our interests.”
Earnest said it would be “unwise” for the Senate to pass the legislation, “particularly when there is an alternative mechanism for us to resolve these kinds of issues with other countries.”
That alternative, he said, is “the essence of diplomacy.”
Shortly before Earnest appeared in the White House briefing room, Ryan addressed the so-called “9/11 bill.”
“I think we need to look at it,” Ryan told reporters at the Capitol. “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.
“The White House is opposed to it. It’s received some opposition here. We’re going to let these things work the process,” he added. “We’ll see where it goes from there.”
There has long been speculation that some members of the Saudi ruling family provided support to the al-Qaida hijackers on 9/11.
The White House on Tuesday picked up another unlikely partner in Graham, a hawkish Armed Services member and former GOP presidential candidate who is a frequent critic of Obama on foreign policy and national security matters. Graham placed a hold on the bill, wanting to review changes that have been made.
In fact, the legislation appears to align the president with many more Republican members than Democrats. Such scenarios, save a handful like trade bills, have been few and far between during Obama’s presidency.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada says that in the Senate, it’s Republicans that are more split.
“I support it, almost everyone in the caucus supports it,” Reid said of his Democrats.
Earnest acknowledged that this White House’s alliances with GOP members “is rare.”
“But I think in this instance it is an indication of just how significant these questions are, and, you know, we’re obviously gratified that there are other Republicans who have taken … a close look at this legislation and recognized the serious, unintended consequences that could result from its passage,” he said.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday declined to discuss prospects for the bill, which is sponsored by Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Charles E. Schumer of New York.
Graham appears to be “concerned with the way that this administration has treated our allies, and particularly Saudi Arabia as a result of the misguided Iran nuclear deal,” Cornyn told reporters. “And now the president seems to want to use the leverage of the 9/11 families in order to somehow mollify or cure that rift that the president has created.
“This is really narrow provision, which only has to do with terrorist attacks on our own soil,” Cornyn said, adding that it wasn’t necessarily the case that it would apply to Saudi Arabia. “Let’s let the chips fall where they may.”
Saudi leaders have threatened to sell $750 billion in U.S. assets should the 9/11 victims bill become law. Earnest, however, seemed to dismiss that threat earlier this week , saying the Middle East power is a “large economy” and has no interest in destabilizing the global economy.
On a related note, Reid said that he supported the position of members of the independent, bipartisan commission that investigated the attacks, who want to see 28 pages of their report that remain classified be made public. The material is believed to draw a picture of foreign support for the 9/11 hijackers.
White House officials are actively contacting members to make their case. Earnest said the administration would like to have “a dialogue” with lawmakers about the legislation.
Correction, 3:45 p.m., April 20 | An earlier version of this story on efforts to block a bill that would give 9/11 victim families the right to sue foreign governments linked to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil mischaracterized Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s position on the bill. Ryan has not taken a position on the bill.
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