Many Republicans are finding themselves on the same side as President Obama in the debate over whether to allow families of 9/11 victims to sue alleged terror financiers in Saudi Arabia, as Senate Democrats clash with the White House over the increasingly controversial issue.
Republicans and administration officials are both warning the bill could have unintended consequences for the United States abroad while antagonizing a key ally in the Middle East.
Obama travels to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and the emergence of the legislation as a point of contention between the president and Senate Democrats is proving politically awkward for the administration.
“I support it, and most everyone in the caucus supports it,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday of Senate Democrats. “The pushback on that is coming from the Republicans. I’ve spoken with the White House… they don’t particularly like it, but that’s okay.”
The legislation would change a longstanding law that gives foreign governments immunity from civil suits by carving out an exception for suits related to a terror attack on U.S. soil. This would mean Saudi Arabia could be subject to civil lawsuits if it is proven that government or financial officials there funneled money to Al Qaeda groups before the Sept. 11 attacks. Saudi officials have threatened to start unloading an estimated $750 billion of U.S.-based assets if the legislation moves forward, to protect their interests from court seizure.
The administration contends that if the legislation is enacted it could lead to other countries implementing similar laws, which would expose the United States to similar legal threats. Obama’s spokesman on Monday indicated the president would veto the bill.
Key Republicans on Tuesday expressed similar concerns as the administration and warned it could alienate Saudi Arabia, while blaming the president for already heightening tensions with the longstanding U.S. ally.
“I’m concerned about the implications of taking this action on other activities, including the reaction of the Saudis,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), recalling how Saudi Arabia hadn’t consulted the United States when it decided to divert resources away from the fight against ISIS to focus on Yemen. “This president has managed to poison relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia that is unprecedented. Because of his desire to have some kind of relationship with Iran.”
Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) on Tuesday declined to endorse the legislation.
“I think we need to review it to make sure that — that we’re not making mistakes with our allies and that — that we’re not catching people in this that shouldn’t be caught up in this,” Ryan told reporters.
McConnell refused to say whether he would support the measure even when asked in front of the bill’s Republican co-author, John Cornyn (R-Texas). Cornyn took pains on Tuesday to try to pull his legislation back from the ballooning political squabbling over U.S.-Saudi relations, while also taking a shot at the administration.
“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 himself as a result of the Iranian nuclear deal,” Cornyn said, adding that the bill “creates a very narrow provision which may or may not apply to Saudi Arabia.”
It doesn’t appear the bill will come to the floor any time soon and some Republican senators, including Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have placed holds on the legislation to prevent it from being brought up quickly for a vote.
“Everybody thinks this is the greatest bill since sliced bread,” Sessions said. “But you can have unintended consequences.”
The controversy over the Sept. 11 bill is fairly new. Victims’ families have long been angling for an opening to bring lawsuits against Saudis alleged to have financed Al Qaeda, as well as the release of 28 classified pages of a 2002 congressional report that address the subject of foreign funding for terror groups.
Support for their cause has been widespread, and a similar version of the legislation passed the Senate by unanimous consent in late 2014. The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by voice vote earlier this year.
Even when Saudi officials recently began to raise concerns about the legislation, many lawmakers said they weren’t quite clear about their specific problems with the bill.
“The Saudis talked to Sen. Corker and me about it on at least one occasion,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations committee, who was recently in Saudi Arabia. “It didn’t seem like there’d be anything in the bill that looked particularly problematic, but then I’m not an expert on immunity issues.”
Now, as proponents of the bill and White House officials try to negotiate a compromise, senators are becoming quick scholars of international law and worry that in their haste to deliver for Sept. 11 victims they could be creating a much larger geopolitical problem.
“Many of the members didn’t focus on it that much and I think since that time people realize there are some significant issues that need to be worked out relative to sovereign immunity in general,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. “You don’t want to set precedent in a way that harms our own country.”