9/11 compensation bill tangled up in Beirut victims’ push

Survivors and family members of those killed in 1983 barracks bombing try to hitch a ride on fast-moving Sept. 11 bill

“The pandemic is long over — unnecessary funding should shift to more worthy causes, like helping U.S. victims of terror attacks,” says Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
“The pandemic is long over — unnecessary funding should shift to more worthy causes, like helping U.S. victims of terror attacks,” says Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 2, 2022 at 6:00am

An effort to help victims and families of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing could derail legislation in the lame-duck session to compensate certain families for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has been seeking bipartisan support to clear a House-passed bill that would provide nearly $3 billion in “catch-up payments” to 9/11 family members who were denied earlier rounds of compensation. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is sponsoring the companion Senate bill.

But that effort grew more complicated after Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced his own bill this week seeking to expand the measure to compensate an estimated 1,500 victims and relatives for a 1983 attack by Hezbollah on a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. military personnel, who were mostly Marines.

Cotton’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, would rescind $3 billion in unspent pandemic aid allocated for an emergency rental assistance program to pay for the expansion. Compensating the Beirut families would cost about $1.1 billion, and the remainder of the money would go into the underlying U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.

His bill, like the Menendez measure, would also tap nearly $3 billion from unspent money in the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to employers who kept workers on payroll during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That money would be used for 9/11 families.

“The pandemic is long over — unnecessary funding should shift to more worthy causes, like helping U.S. victims of terror attacks,” Cotton said in a statement. “This legislation will allocate funding to ensure that the brave Americans who were killed in brutal attacks like 9/11 and the 1983 Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing are repaid the debt of gratitude America owes.”

But Menendez warned Cotton’s bill would diminish the chances for swift passage of compensation to 9/11 families. Expanding the bill in the Senate would require sending it back to the House for another vote as lawmakers scramble to complete their work for the year in less than three weeks. The House passed it in September on a 400-31 vote.

“The demand to change this bill, which has already passed the House, may only ensure that no one gets justice at the end of the day,” Menendez said in a statement. He said he offered to work with Cotton on a bipartisan bill for the Beirut victims “in a separate legislative vehicle that will not delay relief for 9/11 families.”

Cotton spokesman James Arnold rejected the attempt to decouple the two compensation measures.

“There’s no reason to leave any victims behind,” Arnold said. “With Sen. Menendez’s support, this bill could easily pass before year’s end.”

Behind-the-scenes work

It wasn’t yet clear whether either or both of the compensation bills could be included in a year-end omnibus spending package. Democrats have been working behind the scenes to attach the Menendez measure to a fiscal 2023 omnibus that is currently under negotiation.

But the new move by Cotton underscored the difficulty in trying to provide financial compensation with taxpayer funds to various victims of terrorism.

The U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund was created in 2015 chiefly to compensate the former U.S. hostages held in the 1979 Iran revolution, along with other victims of terrorist acts like the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and attack on the USS Cole. Separate funds had been created earlier and periodically reauthorized to provide medical and financial compensation to 9/11 victims and family members.

But under a 2019 law, the fund for state-sponsored terrorism has effectively been divided in two, with half of available money going to 9/11 families and the other half reserved for all other victims. The change was made in response to court judgments won by 9/11 families in recent years that many found hard to swallow: that Iran should be held liable for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington waged by al-Qaida terrorists, who were mostly from Saudi Arabia.

Former Iran hostages, meanwhile, are still waiting for most of the compensation they were promised in 2015, in part because money was diverted to 9/11 families.

[Aid bill for 9/11 families exposes rift with former Iran hostages]

They've been working with Sen. Raphael Warnock’s office to try to provide an extra cash infusion as part of year-end legislation to make whole former hostages like William Daugherty, an ex-CIA operative and constituent of the Georgia Democrat. Aides to Warnock, who’s locked in a tight runoff campaign against GOP challenger Herschel Walker that will be decided next week, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Similar court judgments against Iran gave victims and relatives of the Beirut bombing legal standing to access the state-sponsored terrorism fund. But without an infusion of new cash, the fund — chiefly financed by penalties paid by companies that violate U.S. sanctions against doing business with terrorism-linked states — hasn’t been able to honor all claims.

The Supreme Court, in 2016, ruled that families of the Beirut bombing should be allowed to collect $1.75 billion from the central bank of Iran. But many of the outstanding judgments have yet to be paid, Arnold said.

“All these years later, it would rub salt in the wound if the family members of those who were lost are left behind again,” said Paul Rivers, a former Marine sergeant who survived the Beirut bombing, in a statement provided by Cotton’s office. “I can’t believe that is what Congress intends.”

But Angela Mistrulli, who lost her father in the 2001 World Trade Center attack, said she did not want to see the Beirut bombing compensation effort derail the quest for immediate aid to 9/11 families like hers.

“We are hopeful that Sen. Cotton respects the long journey we have been on, the path Congress has already forged for considering such requests, and seeks justice for the 1983 Beirut bombing victims using that congressionally approved path on a separate piece of legislation,” she said by email.