WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham wants changes to a bill that would give 9/11 survivors and victims’ families recourse to sue Saudi Arabia.
The South Carolina Republican’s push to revise the existing language, however, has him at odds with one of the state’s largest law firms that is representing almost 6,000 people who either survived or are related to a victim of those terror attacks.
“Our hope would be that Sen. Graham and other would-be detractors would take a careful look at the text of the bill and realize that, as it’s been presented and passed unanimously by the entire Congress, they would realize that it represents good public policy for the United States,” said Robert Haefele, an attorney working on this case at Motley Rice, a plaintiffs firm based in Mount Pleasant with offices around the country.
The debate over the so-called “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” is also taking place after the measure passed both chambers of Congress and has been sent to President Barack Obama, who plans to veto it on grounds it would potentially harm the United States’ relationship with an important ally, plus prevent a situation where the U.S. could be sued in retaliation.
Lawmakers plan to vote to override the veto before they leave Washington, D.C., for a month-long, pre-Election Day recess in October, giving them a narrow window in which to act.
Graham said that if lawmakers and the Obama administration can’t agree on a compromise before a veto override vote is scheduled in the Senate, he’ll vote in favor of the override.
“Right now it’s ‘either or,’ ” Graham said earlier this week. “You’re either for the families or you’re for Saudi Arabia. How about this? How about a path forward for the 9/11 families that’s done in a fashion that will not be seen as a hostile act towards Saudi Arabia?
“ ‘Either or’ politics is not where I want to go, but it may wind up that if nobody’s trying to accommodate this problem, we’re just gonna vote,” Graham continued, “and if I have to vote, I’m going to vote to override the veto.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Graham said it appeared that there would be no agreement to reevaluate the language.
Still, some supporters of the legislation are chafing as Graham, an influential and outspoken foreign policy hawk, makes headlines saying he isn’t satisfied with the current product, creating a possibility that the bill’s enactment could be delayed even more than it already has.
“We haven’t been convinced that there’s anything wrong with the language that exists,” Haefele said, “and we have concerns that any effort to change the language would simply be an effort to delay the bill’s enactment.”
Graham, a co-sponsor of the legislation, used parliamentary maneuvers back in April to prevent the bill from moving forward.
In the original bill, Saudi Arabians could be sued only if they took certain actions within the scope of their jobs. While Saudi Arabia has not been implicated in the 9/11 attacks, 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers were of Saudi descent.
At some point between the bill’s introduction and preparation to move it through the Senate, a revision was made to the bill to remove those “scope of employment” protections, potentially making it more difficult to determine whether an individual committed a crime independently or in connection to their employers — or country.
Graham objected to those changes. Later, after efforts were made to ease his concerns, Graham lifted his hold on the bill and the Senate advanced it. The House followed suit earlier this month, but some of Graham’s concerns persisted.
As for how his position on this issue could interfere with his relationship with Motley Rice, Graham said he didn’t expect it to be a problem. On Monday evening, he told The Post and Courier he hasn’t heard from the firm, which has given Graham thousands of dollars over the years in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“They know where I stand,” he said.
Haefele also didn’t indicate the disagreement would cause damage, though he said many of Motley Rice’s clients have reached out to Graham’s office to express their displeasure.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he is still “studying the unintended consequences” of the bill.
“In the end,” Scott said, “I lean towards providing more access to sue.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.