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White House hints at veto of Saudi Arabia, Sept. 11 legislation

Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir shake hands in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 23, 2016.  President Obama could veto a bill to give Sept. 11 victims’ families the power to sue Saudi Arabian officials. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool
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President Obama would likely veto legislation allowing families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to sue members of Saudi Arabia’s government over their alleged support for terrorism through charities and other contributions that funneled money to al-Qaeda, White House spokesman Josh Earnest signaled on Monday.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister warned lawmakers last month that if the measure goes forward, Riyadh would start selling off about $750 billion in U.S.-based assets to keep them from potentially being seized by the courts, according to the New York Times.

The legislation, which the Senate Judiciary Committee approved unanimously earlier this year, is not scheduled to come up for a floor vote any time soon, but it is getting renewed attention ahead of Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia this week, where he will meet with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

Earnest argued the bill’s impact goes beyond whether the Saudis sell off assets held in the United States.

“The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake,” Earnest told reporters Monday. “It could put the United States, and our taxpayers, and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk, if other countries were to adopt a similar law.”

He added that it is “difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it’s currently drafted.”

The legislation, which was authored by John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the Senate and Peter King (R-N.Y.) in the House, is a response to frustrations voiced by victims’ families, whose attempts to sue Saudi Arabian officials over the attacks have been thwarted by a longstanding law that gives foreign governments immunity from civil suits.

The bill would carve out an exception for suits concerning a foreign government shown to bear responsibility for a terror attack on U.S. soil.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a long alliance, but it has recently been challenged by the controversy over the international community’s nuclear deal with Iran and the fight against the Islamic State.

In a recent Atlantic article, Obama described the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia as “complicated,” expressing frustrations with everything from its social policy to its military activities in the Middle East.

On Monday, Earnest stressed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi partnership in the fight against terrorists. He said Saudi Arabia was focused on “countering those who seek to propagate extremist ideology” since the Sept. 11 attacks and that whatever problems exist between the two countries “can be addressed through diplomacy.”

But the administration isn’t denying there’s a potential financial link between Saudi Arabia and the extremist groups that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes was featured on David Axelrod’s “The Axe Files” podcast Monday explaining that the “seed money, if you will, for what became al-Qaeda, came out of Saudi Arabia,” and at best, the government was paying “insufficient attention to where all this money was going.”

In the United States, the measure to allow victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia is politically popular: it’s supported by lawmakers from both parties. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are also back the measure, creating an awkward situation for the White House.

The bill passed the Senate in 2014 by unanimous consent, though the House did not take it up. But there is a barrier to passing the legislation in similar fashion this year, thanks to an anonymous Republican putting a hold on the bill, according to a Democratic aide.

The Obama administration has been lobbying hard against the measure, though Earnest said the president had not made personal appeals to lawmakers.