WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia despite a White House veto threat and fierce objections from the U.S. ally.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, 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 U.S. 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.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release U.S. 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 U.S. "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.
Schumer was confident the Senate had the 67 votes to override a presidential veto.
"We don't think their arguments stand up," the New York lawmaker told reporters at a news conference after the Senate action.
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 U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia - a key U.S. ally - has threatened to retaliate financially if the bill becomes law and administration officials have been lobbying to kill the legislation, but that has made many 9/11 families very angry, CBS News correspondent Chip Reid has reported.
"I'm completely outraged," said Loria Van Auken, who is among those convinced that the 9/11 hijackers were helped by Saudi agents. Her husband Kenneth worked on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower.
For years, Van Auken and other 9/11 families have tried to hold the Saudi government accountable in federal court. But because foreign governments are immune from suits in the U.S., their efforts have so far failed.
"If someone you loved was murdered and the person was just able to go away Scott free, would you be okay with that? I don't think anybody would," Van Auken said.