The House on Friday passed legislation allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts, days before the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
The legislation passed unanimously by voice vote, to thunderous applause.
The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously in May, now heads to President Obama’s desk, where its future is uncertain.
The White House has hinted strongly it will veto the measure. Obama has lobbied fiercely against it, arguing it could both strain relations with Saudi Arabia and lead to retaliatory legislation overseas against U.S. citizens.
But lingering suspicion over Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 attacks and pressure from victims’ families made the bill a popular bipartisan offering on Capitol Hill.
The bill’s popularity puts the president in a delicate position. Supporters are hoping Obama will be leery of expending political capital he desperately needs during the lame-duck session.
The president is hoping lawmakers will pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a criminal justice reform measure and confirm Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
If Obama does choose to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, supporters believe that they have the two-thirds majority needed to override him — a first during his presidency.
“I think we easily get the two-thirds override if the president should veto,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, said when the bill cleared the upper chamber in the spring.
But many on Capitol Hill do not believe that the veto is a done deal. The White House has not issued an official position on the bill and spokesmen have been careful with their language, stopping short of issuing a full veto threat.
“We have serious concerns with the bill as written,” a White House official said Wednesday.
“We believe there needs to be more careful consideration of the potential unintended consequences of its enactment before the House considers the legislation,” the official said. “We would welcome opportunities to further engage with the Congress on that discussion.”
The president has 10 days to either sign or reject the legislation before it becomes law.
Supporters of the legislation see it as a moral imperative.
“The victims of 9-11 and other terrorist attacks on US soil have suffered much pain and heartache, but they should not be denied justice,” Schumer said in a statement Wednesday.
Under current U.S. law, victims may sue a country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, like Iran. The bill would allow citizens to sue countries without that designation — like Saudi Arabia.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia. Critics have long suspected that the kingdom’s government may have either directly or indirectly supported the attacks.
Congress in July released 28 previously secret pages detailing suspicious Saudi ties to the 9/11 hijackers, but the report failed to provide a smoking gun. House Intelligence Committee leaders have cautioned that the findings were preliminary.
The 9/11 Commission report said that neither the Saudi government “as an institution” nor its senior officials funded the attackers.
Saudi officials have for years denied that their government had any role in plotting the attacks, and the Saudi government has led a quiet campaign in Washington to kill the legislation.
Despite its popularity in Congress, some prominent national security advisers have also pilloried the bill.
Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, both of whom served under former President George W. Bush, this week warned that the legislation “is far more likely to harm the United States than bring justice against any sponsor of terrorism.”