The Cable

Top Republicans Are Uneasy About Saudi 9/11 Bill

A handful of top Republicans in Congress expressed skepticism Tuesday about a Senate bill that would let U.S. citizens sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks -- a positive sign for White House efforts to derail the legislation ahead of President Barack Obama’s trip to Riyadh this week.

10/10 US-ATTACKS-2ND YEAR ANNIVERSARY  The rubble of the World Trade Center smoulders following a terrorist attack 11 September 2001 in New York. A hijacked plane crashed into and destroyed the landmark structure. The all-out war on terrorism unleashed by Washington after the attacks marked a turning point in US-Arab relations and nowhere more so than in once top ally Saudi Arabia. With 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers carrying Saudi nationality and mastermind Osama bin Laden being the scion of a leading Saudi family, the desert kingdom and world oil kingpin, suddenly found itself on the frontline of the war on terror prosecuted by US President George W. Bush. AFP PHOTO/Alex Fuchs  (Photo credit should read ALEX FUCHS/AFP/Getty Images)
10/10 US-ATTACKS-2ND YEAR ANNIVERSARY The rubble of the World Trade Center smoulders following a terrorist attack 11 September 2001 in New York. A hijacked plane crashed into and destroyed the landmark structure. The all-out war on terrorism unleashed by Washington after the attacks marked a turning point in US-Arab relations and nowhere more so than in once top ally Saudi Arabia. With 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers carrying Saudi nationality and mastermind Osama bin Laden being the scion of a leading Saudi family, the desert kingdom and world oil kingpin, suddenly found itself on the frontline of the war on terror prosecuted by US President George W. Bush. AFP PHOTO/Alex Fuchs (Photo credit should read ALEX FUCHS/AFP/Getty Images)

A handful of top Republicans in Congress expressed skepticism Tuesday about a Senate bill that would let U.S. citizens sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks — a positive sign for White House efforts to derail the legislation ahead of President Barack Obama’s trip to Riyadh this week.

“We need to review it to make sure that we’re not making mistakes with our allies,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.

The White House forcefully objected to the legislation, saying Monday the bill could expose U.S. citizens abroad if other nations passed similar laws removing foreign immunity in their own courts. “It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

But the most vociferous opposition to the bill came from the Saudi government, a longtime strategic ally in the Middle East, which denies any involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Last Friday, The New York Times reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir told a group of American lawmakers that Riyadh would have no choice but to sell as much as $750 billion in U.S. assets if the bill became law, a rare and unusual threat.

The legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, would strip immunity from foreign governments in cases “arising from a terrorist attack that kills an American on American soil.” It is sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), but it’s unclear when — or if — it will come up for a vote in the full Senate or House.

Some American families whose relatives were killed in the September 2001 attacks want to sue Riyadh because 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers were Saudi nationals. Allegations also have surfaced that some Saudi officials provided support to the terrorists ahead of the attack.

Cornyn accused Obama of “pulling out all the stops” to shield Saudi Arabia from a bill that he said would bring justice to the families of 9/11 victims.

“I wish the president and his aides would spend as much time and energy working with us in a bipartisan manner as they have working against us, trying to prevent victims of terrorism from receiving the justice that they deserve,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

But the Obama administration’s initial push against the legislation appears to be having some impact. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has placed a hold on the bill and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told Reuters on Tuesday that “there are some sovereign immunity issues that need to be worked through” — a complaint that mirrors the administration’s concerns.

A senior State Department official declined to outline specific ways the bill could be changed, but said it would be opposed in its current form.

“We have concerns with the way it’s written right now,” said the official, who spoke on background to discuss pending legislation. “And I think we want to make sure that those concerns are expressed .. and lead to changes to the draft legislation that helps alleviate our concerns.”

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