Bush to Fight for Port Deal
President Bush vowed Tuesday to veto any legislation that would block a state-owned Arab company from managing the operations at six large U.S. seaports, setting up a major confrontation between the White House and its usually steadfast Republican allies in Congress.
Bush’s threat came as the top Republicans on Capitol Hill -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois -- joined a chorus of lawmakers requesting that the port deal be reviewed because of national security concerns.
Under the controversial transaction, Dubai Ports World, a business owned by the United Arab Emirates, would operate ports in New York; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Miami; and New Orleans. A British company had been in charge of the ports, but it was recently purchased by the Arab company. The sale is expected to be finalized in March.
The U.S. government, including officials from the Department of Homeland Security, reviewed the deal and approved it. But the political furor over that decision has been growing in the last few days.
Responding to bipartisan calls that the deal be revisited -- and perhaps disapproved -- Bush was blunt.
Lawmakers “ought to listen to what I have to say about this,” he told reporters. “They ought to look at the facts and understand the consequences of what they’re going to do. But if they pass a law, I’ll deal with it, with a veto.”
The president was noncommittal when asked if he would agree to let administration officials brief Congress on the agreement. He said the Arab company’s record was “clear for everybody to see.”
Legislators on both sides of the political aisle have questioned whether the deal would compromise security at the ports, with some noting links that the Sept. 11 terrorists had to the United Arab Emirates.
The Bush administration views that as an unfair attack on the country, which it defends as a strong ally in its war on terrorism. More broadly, criticism of the deal threatens the White House’s efforts to build better relations in the Arab world.
The dispute threatens to undermine the one area where Bush remains popular with the public -- protecting the U.S. from terrorism -- and could give Democrats a political weapon to use against him during this year’s congressional campaigns.
Frist, visiting the Port of Long Beach on Tuesday, set the stage for Bush’s sharp remarks when he urged that the port deal be put on hold until the administration conducted a “more extensive review” of it.
If the administration refused, he said, he would introduce legislation to delay the transaction.
Hastert, in a letter to Bush, said he was “very concerned about the national security implications” of the deal and asked for “an immediate moratorium” on it.
“We must not allow the possibility of compromising our national security due to lack of review or oversight by the federal government,” he said.
These and other comments from Republicans left Bush little choice but to respond. He took the rare step of inviting reporters into the front cabin of Air Force One to issue his veto threat as he returned from a speech in Colorado.
He also accused critics of attempting to deny a Middle Eastern company the same opportunity given to a British firm.
“I’m trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to people of the world, ‘We’ll treat you fairly,’ ” Bush said.
Speaking shortly after returning to the White House, Bush sought to underscore that the Coast Guard and the customs service -- not a foreign company -- would be responsible for port security.
“If there was any chance that this transaction would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go forward,” he said.
Bush’s decision to hold an impromptu question-and-answer session aboard Air Force One and then to reiterate his comments upon landing -- repeating several times his position that reversing the deal would send a “terrible” signal to allies -- was an unusual departure for a president who likes to appear above the fray of Capitol Hill politics.
The clash could produce the first veto of Bush’s administration. It also comes against a backdrop of recent tensions between Bush and Congress over the administration’s conduct of the war on terrorism and the operations of the Homeland Security Department.
Many lawmakers -- including Republicans -- have pressed the White House to tell them more about the spying program Bush approved shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, under which government agents do not need to obtain court warrants to monitor international communications by people in the United States with suspected ties to terrorists.
Also, the Homeland Security Department’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina sparked intense bipartisan criticism.
Democrats have been quick to seize on the ports deal as evidence, they said, of the Bush administration’s carelessness on security.
As Bush visited Florida on Friday to give a speech about the war on terrorism, that state’s Democratic Party issued a statement accusing him of “outsourcing American port security to the Middle East.”
The conflict intensified as more and more Republicans -- although less vitriolic in their rhetoric -- added their voices to the criticism, creating a political problem for the White House.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Tuesday he would seek to bring emergency legislation before the chamber next week that would delay the takeover, require a more thorough review of its effect on national security and empower Congress to overturn it.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), the panel’s vice chairman, was more blunt, saying on CNN: “We’re not going to allow this [deal] to happen.”
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel’s top Democrat, said in a letter to administration officials that although the United Arab Emirates has been an ally in the war on terrorism, some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had traveled to the United States from that country -- “where they were engaged in operational planning for the attacks.”
And, they said, much of the financing for the attacks was transferred through the United Arab Emirates banking system.
A spokesman at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington read a statement from the minister of foreign affairs saying the country has been a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged his colleagues to “take a moment and not rush to judgment.”
“The president’s leadership has earned our trust in the war on terror, and surely his administration deserves the presumption that they would not sell our security short,” McCain said in a statement.
Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) suggested in a statement that the White House had been politically tone deaf in signing off on the deal, saying: “It should have been painfully obvious that a sale of this type would raise serious concern in Congress and before the American public.”
New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Jon S. Corzine, said Tuesday the state would file lawsuits in federal and state courts opposing the agreement.
Defending the deal, White House counselor Dan Bartlett told Fox News Channel that the United Arab Emirates was “cooperating with our government in the war on terror. And I think it’s critically important -- the president feels strongly about this -- that as we fight to win this war, we need to be adding strategic partners in the region, not subtracting them.”
Frist, in a statement issued by his office, said that the deal was “not the first time questions have been raised about the executive branch’s review process, led by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.”
He was referring to the obscure panel of U.S. officials that considers whether national security might be compromised when foreign companies seek to buy or invest in American industry. It was this panel that approved the port deal.
There was congressional uproar last year over a Chinese oil company’s bid to buy Unocal Corp. Lawmakers from both parties said the takeover could hurt national security, and the Chinese oil company, CNOOC Ltd., abandoned the effort.
Times staff writers Joel Havemann in Washington and Teresa Watanabe in Long Beach contributed to this report.
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Dubai Ports World
Function: Runs container terminal operations for major cargo ports throughout the world
Corporate headquarters: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Date of establishment: 1985, as Dubai Ports Authority (named changed in 2005)
CEO: Mohammed Sharaf
Sources: Dubai Ports World, Times reports