Congress on Friday approved a bill that would allow the victims of 9/11 to sue the government of Saudi Arabia – putting lawmakers on a collision course with the White House.
The House passed the legislation by voice vote on Friday, months after the Senate OK'd the measure back in May. The bill heads soon to President Obama's desk, testing whether the White House will follow through on warnings that the president could veto.
The administration for months has argued the legislation could harm the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and put U.S. officials stationed overseas in jeopardy.
But Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said the U.S. government should be more concerned about the families of the victims than "diplomatic niceties."
The bill would give victims’ families the right to sue in U.S. court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks that killed thousands of Americans in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Poe said he doesn't know if the Saudi government had a role in the attacks.
"That's for a jury of Americans to decide," he said.
The vote was held ahead of the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks. Following Friday’s vote, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the authors of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, said he was “pleased” the House had “taken this huge step forward towards justice” and said he hoped the Obama administration would not veto the bill.
“There are always diplomatic considerations that get in the way of justice, but if a court proves the Saudis were complicit in 9/11, they should be held accountable,” Schumer said in a written statement. “If they’ve done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about.”
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, has voiced strong objections to the legislation.
The White House also has cautioned that if the door is opened for U.S. citizens to take the Saudis to court, then a foreign country could in turn sue the United States.
Votes from two-thirds of the members in the House and Senate would be needed to override a veto.
Friday’s House vote comes two months after Congress released 28 declassified pages from a congressional report into 9/11 that reignited speculation over links at least a few of the attackers had to Saudis, including government officials. The allegations were never substantiated by later U.S. investigations into the terrorist attacks.
Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy if the legislation is enacted. But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir denied in May that the kingdom made any threats over the bill. He said Riyadh had warned that investor confidence in the U.S. would shrink if the bill became law.
"In fact what they (Congress) are doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities, which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle," Al-Jubeir said.
Right before Friday’s vote, House members from both parties briefly adjourned to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., led a moment of silence on the Capitol steps, and lawmakers sang "God Bless America" in remembrance of 9/11, when lawmakers gathered in the same location to sing the song immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.