WASHINGTON — The House on Friday approved in a voice vote a bill to allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to pursue a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia to seek compensation for its alleged complicity in the plot.
Several advocates for the bill, including relatives of the 3,000 civilians who died in al-Qaida hijackings and crashings of four airliners, burst into cheers and applause in the galleries as the bill passed after the handful of legislators on the House floor all voted aye.
The bipartisan vote came two days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks and after hundreds of House members re-enacted their symbolic gesture of solidarity on Sept. 11, 2001, by singing “God Bless America” as they stood on the steps of the Capitol.
The bill, which the Senate passed unanimously in May, now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama, whose spokesman in May said he couldn’t imagine him signing it because he has concerns about other countries retaliating by suing the United States.
“That’s great. What we need next is to finish the job. Don’t let the president pocket veto the bill,” said Terry Strada, leader of the 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, who lost her husband Tom Strada in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s north tower after it was hit by a hijacked airliner.
The passage of the bill, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, in both chambers and its support on both sides of the aisle and by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, demonstrates that a veto by Obama could be overridden.
The White House did not respond immediately to queries about its reaction to the vote.
Before the vote, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spoke in favor of the measure, which has stirred opposition from the administration, some foreign policy experts and Saudi Arabia, which has lobbied against it.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), sponsor of the bill, called Friday “a great day” and thanked other lawmakers and 9/11 families for their work to pass the bill.
“This is essential so that justice can be done,” King said in a floor speech.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the bill’s Democratic sponsor, sought to downplay opposition to the measure based on concerns that other nations would retaliate by adopting their own laws to sue the United States.
Nadler said America is not placed in legal jeopardy because “the United States does not engage in international terrorist activity” — the grounds on which citizens can sue other countries under the bill.
Nadler added that the amended version sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) allows a stay in legal proceedings as the U.S. makes a good-faith effort to resolve claims through negotiation.
Citing the 200 men and women from his district who died and the thousands more killed and ill from the terrorist attack, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said, “They all deserve justice.”
Israel added, “I urge the president not to veto this bill.”