The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, rejecting the fierce objections of a U.S. ally and setting Congress on a collision course with the Obama administration.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), approved by voice vote, had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy, if the bill is enacted.
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gives victims' families the right to sue in US court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks that killed thousands in New York, the Washington, D.C. area and Pennsylvania.
The House still must act on the legislation.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release US intelligence that allegedly discusses possible Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Passage of the bill sends the message that the United States "will combat terrorism with every tool we have available, and that the victims of terrorist attacks in our country should have every means at their disposal to seek justice," Cornyn said.
Schumer said that any foreign government that aids terrorists who strike the US "will pay a price if it is proven they have done so."
Senate Democrats had firmly supported the legislation, putting them at odds with the Obama administration. The White House has said the bill could expose Americans overseas to legal risks, and spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday efforts to revise the legislation fell short in addressing the administration's concerns about preserving sovereign immunity.
"Given the concerns that we've expressed, it's difficult to imagine the president signing this legislation," Earnest told reporters at the White House.
Schumer was confident the Senate had the necessary two-thirds vote of the chamber to override a presidential veto.
"We don't think their arguments stand up," the New York lawmaker said at a news conference after the Senate action.
In April, The Christian Science Monitor noted that "The White House and US State Department have stepped up their efforts in lobbying against the bill." Mr. Earnest said at the time that such legislation "would harm international sovereignty and put the US at 'significant risk' if other countries introduced similar laws."
The Monitor also reported that Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia was complicated "by the president’s apparent reference to the Saudis and other Gulf and European nations as 'free riders'," as well as the ongoing debate over JASTA.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, had blocked the bill from moving to the Senate floor until changes were made to ensure the legislation didn't backfire on the United States.
Graham's apprehension was rooted in the possibility a foreign country could sue the United States if the door is opened for U.S. citizens to take the Saudis to court. Graham released his hold earlier this month, clearing the way for Senate action.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also had warned that the legislation, if passed, would alienate Saudi Arabia and undermine a longstanding yet strained relationship with a critical US ally in the Middle East.
Schumer said it is false to claim that the bill encourages retaliation or litigation against the United States.
"We're not busy training people to blow up buildings and kill innocent civilians in other countries," Schumer said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.