WASHINGTON (AP) — Families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks say they are "greatly distressed" that the Obama administration is working to derail legislation giving them the right to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the attack.
"Your place in history should not be marked by a campaign to foreclose the judicial process as a venue in which the truth can be found," more than a dozen relatives of Sept. 11 victims wrote to President Barack Obama.
The family members also urged Obama to permit the declassification and release of U.S. intelligence bearing on the topic of possible Saudi involvement in the attacks.
At issue is a bill that would allow victims' families to hold the Saudi government liable in U.S. court.
"It is not acceptable ... to succumb to the demands of a foreign government that we abandon principles of American justice while we pursue our diplomatic goals," the families wrote.
House Speaker Paul Ryan tiptoed into the swelling controversy Tuesday, telling reporters that lawmakers need to review the bill "to make sure that we're not making mistakes with our allies." Obama is traveling to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday as part of an overseas trip.
"The White House is opposed to it. It's received some opposition here. We're going to let these things work the process," said Ryan, R-Wis. He noted that the White House is sure to promise a veto and "we'll see where it goes from there."
The White House says it opposes the bill because it could expose Americans overseas to legal risk and could damage the U.S. relationship with the Saudi government. The Kingdom has threatened to pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy if the legislation is enacted.
"If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries," Obama said in an interview with CBS News.
Top bill sponsor John Cornyn, R-Texas, dismissed Obama's objections to his Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
"It makes minor adjustments to our laws to help Americans who are attacked on U.S. soil get justice from those who sponsor and facilitate that terrorist attack," Cornyn said.
Cornyn said Tuesday he has not discussed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell whether he supports the bill and when McConnell may schedule it for consideration by the full Senate.
"My hope is that if there are no objections to proceeding, that we can take the bill up and pass it without any delay," he said.
But Cornyn said that's unlikely to happen while Obama visits Saudi Arabia this week.
"I think we're all kind of sensitive to the fact of where the president is right now," he said. "Maybe it would be appropriate to wait a day or two until he returns. But I'm not willing to throw the 9-11 victims under the bus because of the botched and misguided policies of the administration dealing with Iran."
Obama's visit promises to address a host of issues concerning the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, a key ally in fighting terrorism and bolstering stability in the region. The Saudis have long pushed, with no success, for more aggressive U.S. military action to counter Iran in Syria and Iraq.
Ryan said the legislation on Sept. 11 victims did not come up when he met with Saudi officials on a trip to the Middle East.
Senior senators in both parties, such as Minority Whip Cornyn and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, support the legislation. Schumer broke with Obama on last year's nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, which was also strongly opposed by Republicans.