House Republicans to try to block ports deal
WASHINGTON – House Republican leaders on Tuesday embraced legislation that would block a Dubai-owned company from taking over operations at several U.S. ports, brushing aside a veto threat from President Bush.”We want to make sure that the security of our ports are in America’s hands,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., whose House Appropriations Committee planned to approve the measure Wednesday.The move marks the latest step in a Republican revolt in Congress unlike any other in Bush’s five years in office. The president has yet to veto any legislation, and GOP leaders have been careful to avoid sending him anything that he wouldn’t sign.Now, six months before an election, they have decided to challenge him.”We’re not going to let the Democrats get to the right of us on national security,” Republican Rep. Peter King, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, said recently.The legislation is expected to reach the House floor next week as part of a $91 billion measure for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and aid for Gulf States recovering from Hurricane Katrina.GOP House leaders informed the White House staff of their intention Tuesday at a House leadership meeting attended by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. He didn’t respond when House Republicans detailed the legislation, according to participants.”The president’s position is unchanged,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.Republicans and Democrats in Congress have spent weeks criticizing the Bush administration for approving DP World’s purchase of London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which holds contracts at several U.S. ports.Many lawmakers, fearing security breaches in an era of terrorism, oppose the deal because a foreign government would be managing terminals at American ports. Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, controls the company.Efforts by the Bush administration to quell the controversy have failed on Capitol Hill, and voters are largely opposed to the DP World plan.”The political reality is, if you have three weeks to explain it, and you can’t explain it … it’s time to end it,” King, R-N.Y., said Tuesday.House Republicans feared that if they didn’t act now to block the deal, Democrats would force their own vote on the issue and it would pass overwhelmingly.”This has become a very hot political potato,” House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. “I have seen it in my district. I have seen it every place I have been.”Declining to go into specifics, Lewis said only that his legislation would not single out any one country or company but would effectively prevent DP World from assuming control of terminals at six U.S. ports.He suggested that he would be open to changing the legislation, if needed, to get the Senate on board and reach middle ground with the White House. However, Lewis said, “we could have a confrontation at the other end.”Indeed, the legislation sets up a fight with the president, who wants the money for Katrina aid and the wars but has threatened to veto any measure that would block or delay DP World’s takeover.The administration last month reluctantly agreed to do a broader investigation into potential security risks of DP World’s plans in hopes of stunting a potential revolt by members of Bush’s party. Republican congressional leaders were mindful that a vote could embarrass the president and further weaken him at a low point in his presidency.But criticism has persisted, particularly in the House.In an unusual break from the administration, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has pledged to do whatever it takes to block the deal.Meanwhile, King has suggested that DP World could soften the controversy by subcontracting its U.S. port operations to an American company and, thereby, having no role in work at the ports.Michael Moore, DP World’s senior vice president, said the company has not discussed such a scenario with administration officials or lawmakers.But DP World’s chairman, Sultan Bin Sulayem, said in an interview on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” “We are appreciating that initiative.” He did not rule out King’s proposal, but he did not say the company was considering it.