Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is blocking the Senate from voting on a bill aimed at providing close to $3 billion to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calling for victims of the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, to share in the compensation.
The Republican senator opposed efforts by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last month to fast-track the “Fairness for 9/11 Families Act” to a vote on the Senate floor.
The bill, H.R. 8987, passed the House in September with overwhelming bipartisan support, with 400 in support and 31 against.
Cotton’s opposition presents an obstacle as the 117th Congress comes to a close and could force the bill’s sponsors to reintroduce it in the House in the next Congress, which begins in January.
Cotton exercised his right to oppose the bill amid negotiations by Schumer to bring the legislation for a quick Senate floor vote through a process of unanimous consent, which can be employed when a bill is viewed as noncontroversial.
“Senator Cotton will not allow a live [unanimous consent] of the bill as long as the Beirut bombing victims are left out,” James Arnold, press secretary for Cotton, told The Hill.
The Fairness for 9/11 Families Act was drafted to compensate 5,364 9/11 victims, spouses and dependents who were excluded from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund (USVSSTF), established in 2015 as a way to compensate victims of terrorism who have secured final judgements in American courts against a state sponsor of terrorism.
The more than 5,000 9/11 victims had earlier received compensation from the 2001 Victims Compensation Fund, but had argued they had been unfairly excluded from compensation from the USVSSTF.
A report by the Government Accountability Office published in August 2021 found that the funds the 9/11 victims applied for through the USVSSTF amounted to about $2.7 billion.
Lawmakers sought to provide this amount of money in a “catch-up payment” and drafted the Fairness for 9/11 Families Act, using leftover funds from the 2020 CARES Act, which was Congress’s COVID-19 relief package.
But victims of the 1983 Beirut bombings are lobbying to also be acknowledged as missing out on payments provided by the USVSSTF.
Last month, seven retired, four-star Marine Corps generals called for Senate leadership to address the exclusion of the Beirut bombing victims in the “Fairness” act, in a letter exclusively obtained by The Hill.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had previously told The Hill that he was also open to including the Beirut bombing victims in the Fairness Act.
“I have to look at it. I don’t know why I wouldn’t … I’d have to see the specificity, also timing, we’re trying to get this done. I’d have to look at it,” he said.
A Menendez spokesperson confirmed that the senator offered Sen. Cotton the chance to work on a path forward to advance bipartisan relief for the Beirut bombing victims outside of the pending House-passed Fairness for 9/11 Families Act, but those talks broke down.
Cotton on Wednesday introduced the “Fairness for American Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism Act,” which mirrors the 9/11 bill, but includes the Beirut bombing victims. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
“Increasing payments to all American victims of state-sponsored terrorism is important and unobjectionable,” Arnold, Cotton’s spokesperson, told The Hill. “There’s no reason to leave any victims behind. With Senator Menendez’s support, this bill could easily pass before year’s end.”
In a statement to The Hill, Menendez said Cotton’s decision to block the Fairness for 9/11 Families Act, and his demand for changes “may only ensure that no one gets justice at the end of the day.”
“The 9/11 widows and children have been waiting seven long years for Congress to address their initial exclusion from the Fund [USVSSTF]. We have an opportunity to do what is right for 9/11 families now, before H.R. 8987 dies in the lame duck session, and we have offered our commitment to work in a bipartisan way with Senator Cotton to deliver justice to the 1983 Beirut Marine Barracks bombing victims and families in a separate legislative vehicle that will not delay relief for 9/11 families,” the senator said.