A 9/11 widow who succeeded in getting the House of Representatives to schedule a vote on a bill pushed by victims’ families ahead of the 15th anniversary of the attacks decided she didn’t want to be present for Friday’s expected approval of the legislation.
“They don’t need me anymore,” said Marge Mathers, 75, as she left Washington on Thursday, struggling with a wheelchair – “I threw out my knee” – and helped by a granddaughter. “I accomplished what I set out to do.”
9/11 widow Marge Mathers, asked her reaction to the bill being scheduled for a House vote Friday
Mathers, a Galveston, Texas, resident, left Washington to take the train to the New Jersey town she’d lived in with her husband, Charles W. Mathers, who died in the World Trade Center.
Mathers had made a last-minute trip to lobby the House this week, joining other 9/11 family members to urge a vote on a bill that would enable victims’ families to sue foreign states that funded the terrorists responsible for the attacks. The bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, would primarily apply to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, 15 were from that country.
The Saudi government has vigorously objected to the legislation and before the Senate in May approved the bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., threatened to pull $750 billion in assets from the United States.
The White House has also threatened to veto the legislation, out of concerns it would undermine state sovereignty and could prompt retaliation against U.S. citizens by other governments.
Cornyn urged President Barack Obama to back the bill.
“I hope that the president will rethink his previous statements expressing an intent to perhaps veto this legislation,” Cornyn said Thursday in a Senate floor speech.
The bill got some momentum this year, especially after the release of the so-called “28 pages” this summer, classified information from a congressional report that linked the hijackers to Saudi financial support.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. was initially reluctant to move the legislation without going through regular procedures, which would have meant a slower process, starting with a vote by the House Judiciary Committee, that would have missed the 15th anniversary.
But after a flurry of activity by bill supporters Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., bolstered by 9/11 families, Ryan agreed that a vote under “suspension of the rules” could take place. The procedure is usually reserved for noncontroversial legislation and a bill must have approval of two-thirds of those present to pass.
“It’s been 15 years, so a lot of emotion has gone out of it,” said King in an interview. “So we really had to work it.”
The families, he said, were “definitely a factor” in persuading leadership. Another issue was a commemoration of 9/11 for Congress and victims’ families on the U.S. Capitol steps that was already scheduled for Friday.
“It wouldn’t look so good to have the families here and not have the vote,” said King.
Despite opposition from what King called the “foreign policy establishment,” the GOP leaders, with the support of Democratic leaders, decided to let the bill go forward.
Even scheduling suspension was difficult, said King, and to let that vote take place on a Friday and not the first two days of the week required a rule change by unanimous consent – meaning even a single “nay” could have sunk the bill. But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., made sure Democrats did not object, even if Obama was going to veto the bill.
The family members, asking for justice, also carried weight. “They made a very effective case,” said King. “That puts such a human face on it.”
Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, who is Mathers’ congressman, is a big supporter of the bill.
“It has been a privilege to work with and get to know Marge Mathers,” Weber told McClatchy. “She has been a tireless advocate for the surviving families of 9/11 who are simply asking for accountability. JASTA empowers those families to seek justice for their loved ones murdered by terrorists as well as the entities that funded the bloodshed.”
“I’m just such a small part of it,” Mathers said of the drive to get the bill scheduled. “I just want this to be an extension of the 28 pages and want them to find the person or persons who were responsible for murdering my husband.”
Since 2010 Mathers had been part of the effort to get the legislation passed and this week she joined Terry Strada, a widow from New Jersey who’s the national chairwoman of 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, in the last-minute push.
It was emotional for Mathers, who thought she wanted to stay but at the same time was afraid she would be overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing it pass in person. “It’s best that I go,” she said quietly.