In a congressional election-year repudiation of President Bush, a House panel dominated by Republicans voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to block a Dubai-owned firm from taking control of some U.S port operations. Democrats clamored for a vote in the Senate, too.
By 62-2, the House Appropriations Committee voted to bar DP World, run by the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, from holding leases or contracts at U.S. ports. The landslide vote was the strongest signal yet that more than three weeks of White House efforts to stunt congressional opposition to the deal have not been successful.
Bush has promised to veto any such measure passed by Congress. But there is widespread public opposition to the deal and the GOP fears losing its advantage on the issue of national security in this fall’s elections.
The White House said the president’s position was unchanged.
‘America’s ports in American hands’
“This is a national security issue,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, the chairman of the House panel, adding that the legislation would “keep America’s ports in American hands.”
As the committee acted, Democrats on the other side of the Capitol maneuvered for a vote in the GOP-led Senate.
Republican leaders are trying to block a vote on the ports deal through a procedural vote that could occur as early as Thursday. That tactic is likely to fail, which could prompt Republicans to pull a lobbying reform bill from the floor in order to avoid defeat on the ports measure.
“We believe an overwhelming majority will vote to end the deal,” said Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, whose attempt to force the issue to the floor brought the Senate to a late-afternoon standstill.
Warner concedes backers are few
Congressional supporters of the deal “are few and far between,” conceded Sen. John Warner, R-Va., an administration supporter.
GOP Senate leaders hope to delay a quick showdown with Bush on the issue, but the House committee, led by members of Bush’s own party, showed a willingness to defy him on a security issue in an age of terrorism.
Raising the stakes, the panel attached the ports language to a must-pass $91 billion measure financing hurricane recovery and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The committee was to approve the entire bill late Wednesday and the full House could consider that measure as early as next week.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration was concerned that attempts to address the DP World deal in that bill could delay money needed for U.S. troops and for hurricane victims on the Gulf Coast.
“We are committed to open and sincere lines of communication and are eager to work with Congress,” she said.
Congressional opponents of the deal hammered away at the security questions they said the ports deal raised.
“One of the most vulnerable situations facing America is our ports of entry,” said Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee. “Whoever’s responsible for those ports of entry should be American.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio., said allowing the DP World takeover to proceed — and ignoring the public outcry over it — would be irresponsible. “The American people elected us to do something when an issue like this comes up,” she said.
Only Reps. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Jim Moran, D-Va., voted against the measure.
“It is premature, we don’t have enough information and ... it may turn out to be unnecessary,” Moran said. Added Kolbe: “I just don’t think this is the right thing to do.”
Twice, anti-war protesters interrupted the committee meeting. They shouted: “this war is illegal,” “stop funding this war,” and “the blood is on your hands.”
The House and Senate developments underscored the extent to which the politically charged issue has come to dominate the agenda in recent days, with Republicans and Democrats competing to demonstrate the strongest anti-terrorism credentials in the run-up to midterm elections.
Frist warns White House
Republicans worked to prevent a vote in the Senate as an aide to Majority Leader Bill Frist said the Tennessean warned Treasury Secretary John Snow “the president’s position will be overrun by Congress” if the administration fails to aggressively and clearly communicate with lawmakers during a 45-day review of security implications.
The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private among Snow, Frist and several GOP committee chairmen. The Treasury Department oversees the multi-agency committee that initially approved the DP World takeover.
Republicans said it was possible senators would pass a simple symbolic statement in coming weeks that would put the Senate’s view of the takeover on record without interfering with it.
But by mid-afternoon Wednesday, with the Senate debating legislation to respond to a corruption scandal involving lobbyists, Democrats signaled they wouldn’t be satisfied with a weak provision.
Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters he was prepared to let the lobbying reform bill languish if necessary.
Powerful political component
Senate Republicans accused Schumer of subterfuge in the way he sought to inject the issue into the debate, pointing to a letter earlier this month in which he and other Democrats said they would refrain from seeking immediate legislation.
Schumer and fellow Democrats brushed that aside, with Reid calling the maneuver “absolutely valid.”
The political context was unmistakable. Democrats circulated a pollster’s memo claiming that recent events had “dramatically reduced” the GOP advantage on national security.
Some GOP senators accused the House of acting prematurely because of the heat Republicans were taking from their constituents.
“To kill the deal without a comprehensive solution to port security is just living for the political moment,” said Lindsey Graham, R-S.C
House Dems fail to force debate
On the House floor, Democrats failed for the second time in a week to force a debate and vote on separate legislation to block DP World’s entry into U.S. port operations.
In the committee, Republicans defeated a broader Democratic amendment that would have changed the process the United States uses to approve such foreign investments.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been assailing the Bush administration for approving DP World’s purchase Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation, a British company that holds leases at several U.S. ports.