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GOP Allies Abandon Bush in Fight Over Arab Port Deal

Times Staff Writers

Under persistent fire in recent weeks for secrecy and failing to communicate with lawmakers, President Bush now faces a stern political test -- quelling a Republican revolt over his decision to allow an Arab company to manage terminals at six major U.S. ports.

The White House failed Wednesday to placate its Republican critics, who pressed ahead with legislative plans to delay -- and perhaps thwart -- the port deal. Their efforts are a direct affront to Bush’s vow to veto such a measure and a sharp departure from the unity that has typified relations between the administration and GOP congressional leaders.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 24, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 97 words Type of Material: Correction
Port security -- An article in Thursday’s Section A on security fears raised by Dubai Ports World’s bid to buy Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. incorrectly said the Arab company would be taking over the operation of cargo terminals at six U.S. ports. The Port of New York and New Jersey was incorrectly listed as two separate ports. At the Port of New York and New Jersey, P&O; operates a cargo terminal in Newark, N.J., and a cruise ship terminal in Manhattan. P&O; operates cargo terminals at four other ports on the East and Gulf coasts.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in defending the deal Wednesday, disclosed that Bush had learned of it only in the past “several days” from media reports. At that point, representatives of several Cabinet offices already had approved the transaction, as required by U.S. law.

McClellan said Bush had reviewed the matter and agreed that the deal involving a state-owned company in Dubai -- part of the United Arab Emirates -- would not jeopardize U.S. security interests.

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But a number of lawmakers said the White House had underestimated public reaction to the deal, particularly given the emphasis Bush and his aides had placed on his vigilance in confronting the terrorism threat.

“This thing hit a fever pitch in my district,” Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) said. “To my constituents, when we’re trying so hard to secure our borders and secure our ports, and then to hear this -- there’s just a lot of concern that we’re two steps forward, three steps backward.”

Of Bush’s threat to veto any bill delaying the port deal until its security implications could be examined more closely, she said, “The American people and the Congress are against him on this.”

Other Republicans, pushing for a vote as early as next week on postponing the deal, emphasized that they would seek to override what would be the first veto of Bush’s presidency.

“I will fight harder than ever for this legislation, and if it is vetoed, I will fight as hard as I can to override it,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the issue today, the first of several planned on Capitol Hill in the coming days.

In the face of escalating dissent over the port decision, Bush issued his threat Tuesday to veto any move by Congress to try to block the deal. He also suggested critics were showing a bias against a Middle Eastern country.

On Wednesday, McClellan sought to characterize the critics as ill-informed. He argued that media reports had left the “false impression” that an Arab country would handle security at ports in New York; Newark, N.J.; Miami; Philadelphia; New Orleans; and Baltimore.

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Under the agreement, Dubai Ports World would supervise shipping operations at these U.S. ports as part of its $6.8-billion takeover of a British firm.

Port security would still be handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Customs Service.

The deal was announced late last year and approved this month by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, whose members include midlevel officials of the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

McClellan said the committee’s decision was viewed as a routine matter that did not “rise to the presidential level.”

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But McClellan conceded that “in hindsight, when you look at this and the coverage that it’s received and the false impression that it has left with some, we probably should have briefed members of Congress about it sooner.”

The uproar over the port deal marked perhaps the sharpest divide between Bush and his party since he nominated White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court in October -- a choice he withdrew under pressure.

Public skepticism about the Miers appointment was expressed mostly by conservative opinion leaders.

On the port deal, Bush also is being opposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and the Republican governors of New York and Maryland.

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Several Republicans said the administration should have been more attuned to the deal’s political overtones, especially in light of public concerns about national security that the White House had helped foster.

Last month, White House political strategist Karl Rove predicted that security would be a driving force in this year’s midterm elections, arguing that Republicans have a “post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview.”

Against this backdrop, the administration “should have recognized that there was going to be a problem” with acceptance of the port deal, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “It seems to me that they have a tin ear someplace within the administration.”

Keene said the president was ill-served by aides who did not prepare for the assaults on the port deal. And he criticized Bush’s decision to defend the agreement so vehemently.

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“Now he’s got his manhood on the line,” Keene said. “You’ve got allies saying, ‘How can you back down?’ It’s going to get very nasty, and there are no political benefits in it for Bush.”

The political firestorm follows recent complaints from many lawmakers -- including Republicans -- that the White House did not adequately inform them of Bush’s decision more than four years ago to allow government agents to spy on people in the U.S. without obtaining court warrants. The program, which targets the international communications of those suspected of having links to terrorists, was revealed in December by the New York Times.

The furor about the port deal also follows last week’s controversy over whether the White House should have made greater efforts to inform the public that Vice President Dick Cheney had accidentally shot a hunting companion Feb. 11.

Discussing the port deal with reporters on Wednesday, McClellan echoed the remarks Bush had made Tuesday. The White House spokesman said criticism of the deal sent a “terrible” signal to U.S. allies at a time that the administration was seeking assistance in fighting the war on terrorism.

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“This transaction was closely scrutinized to make sure that there were no national security threats,” McClellan said. “There were no objections raised by any of the departments that are charged with being involved in this process. And that’s why it didn’t rise up to the presidential level.”

Also Wednesday, the Dubai company’s chief operating officer offered assurances that the deal would not lessen security at the ports.

The executive, Edward H. “Ted” Bilkey, also said on CNN that the firm would “do anything that’s necessary” to calm such fears and keep the deal on track.

Talking points sent to GOP leaders by the Republican National Committee noted that the firm had “several Americans among its top executives.”

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And a White House fact sheet issued late Wednesday noted that the United Arab Emirates, along with backing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, had provided $100 million in aid to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Still, such arguments seemed unlikely to sway many Republicans who usually can be counted on as unswerving Bush allies.

For instance, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) offered her thoughts on the port deal in a one-sentence letter to Bush: “In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just NO -- but HELL NO!”

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), in an opinion article published Wednesday in the Philadelphia Inquirer, said it was “preposterous” to turn over port operations to a state-owned company based in a country that had proven ties to terrorism.

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“While the United Arab Emirates has been an ally over the last few years, it certainly has ties to Islamic fascism, and trusting that it will remain on our side in the war on terror is not a risk that I am willing to take,” wrote Santorum, who faces a tough reelection campaign this year.

The controversy left Bush with few advocates in the ranks of high-profile GOP officials. But one defense came from his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Gov. Bush said that media coverage on the port transaction had given “cause for concern,” but that he was confident security at the facilities would remain in U.S. hands. He said that his brother had “the national security interest of our country first and foremost in his mind and in his heart.”

Another White House ally, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, predicted that the issue would fade in time.

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The conservative movement, he said, would come to see that the facts were on Bush’s side. “The only whiners left by next week will be the registered bigots,” Norquist said.

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Times staff writers Janet Hook, James Gerstenzang and Joel Havemann contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ports in the storm

Only two of the ports in the controversy are among the busiest in North America.

How they rank:

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Port ranking by cargo movement in 2005 (In millions of TEUs*)

1. Los Angeles--7.5

2. Long Beach--6.7

3. New York/New Jersey--4.8

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4. Oakland--2.3

5. Tacoma, Wash.--2.1

15. Miami--1.1

20. Baltimore--0.6**

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26. New Orleans--0.3**

29. Philadelphia--0.2

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*Twenty-foot equivalent units, the standard size of measurement for shipping containers

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** Data for 2004

Source: American Assn. of Port Authorities


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