ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Obama is headed to Saudi Arabia this week for what could be a contentious visit. The Saudis have been at odds with the United States for striking a nuclear deal with Iran, their sworn enemy, and Obama didn't help matters with a recent magazine interview. In it, he said that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to share the neighborhood.
Well, now there's a new wrinkle, a bill in Congress that's designed to force the Saudi government to answer for any role it may have played in the September 11 attacks. Saudi Arabia has long denied any involvement, although 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And Scott, tell us about this bill.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Robert, it's called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, and it's backed by number of senators, including John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Schumer of New York. It's designed to allow the victims of 9/11 and their families to sue the Saudi government for damages. Sean Carter is one of the lawyers who represents those families.
SEAN CARTER: What the legislation that Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Schumer are leading would do is simply state a relatively unremarkable proposition. A foreign government is not immune from a claim that it aided and abetted a terrorist attack that causes physical harm on U.S. soil.
SIEGEL: Scott, why has the Obama administration been lobbying hard against this bill?
HORSLEY: The White House and the State Department argue that this notion of sovereign immunity that this bill would undermine, that notion is reciprocal. So it protects Americans in other countries just as it protects foreign governments in this country. Josh Earnest explained in the White House briefing today that the same principle protects American interests abroad.
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JOSH EARNEST: Walking back that principle would put the United States, our taxpayers and our service members and diplomats at risk.
HORSLEY: Now the lawmakers behind this bill and the 9/11 victims disagree. They insist the Cornyn-Schumer bill is narrowly crafted. It would apply only to governments that work with recognized terrorist groups like al-Qaida. They say the United States doesn't do that, so our people would not be at risk.
SIEGEL: And Scott, what are the Saudis saying about this bill?
HORSLEY: Well, they are working hard to stop it, and they've threatened to use some economic leverage there. Their opposition was first reported over the weekend by The New York Times. The Saudis threatened to unload hundreds of billions of dollars in American treasury securities.
That would have the effect of both punishing the United States and protecting those assets from being seized by American courts. Now White House spokesman Earnest was asked about that threat today and he downplayed the possibility, saying if the Saudis tried that, they'd in effect by cutting off their nose to spite their face.
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EARNEST: Obviously, a country with a modern and large economy like Saudi Arabia would not benefit from a destabilized global financial market, and neither would the United States.
SIEGEL: Now this whole issue has become an issue in the presidential campaign. With the New York primary tomorrow, politicians have been under pressure to take sides on the bill. Does it have enough support right now in Congress to, say, be able to override a presidential veto?
HORSLEY: So far, we've not see that kind of groundswell of support. But you're right, it has become an issue in the primary. Hillary Clinton was asked about it on the weekend TV shows. Initially, she stopped short of taking a position, but then shortly thereafter her spokesman tweeted that she supports the measure. Ted Cruz is also a co-sponsor. And Bernie Sanders spoke in support of the bill today on "The Today Show."
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BERNIE SANDERS: As you may know, the Saudi government has been a major proponent of Wahhabism, which is an extreme fundamentalist version of Islam which is being taught all over the world. It is a very destructive religion, and I think it's important we do understand the role that Saudis may have played.
HORSLEY: With the New York primary tomorrow, this is a probably a moment of maximum leverage for the backers of the bill. But if the White House pulled out all the stops to block it, it doesn't look as if there'd be enough votes to override a veto.
SIEGEL: Scott, thank you.
HORSLEY: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.