GOP leaders seek to bar port deal

House measure to halt it would be linked to bill funding wars, hurricane relief

March 08, 2006|By RICHARD SIMON | RICHARD SIMON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Showing no sign of backing down from a possible showdown with President Bush, House Republican leaders yesterday endorsed a proposal to block a government-owned Arab company's takeover of some port operations in Baltimore and five other U.S. cities.

Today, with the blessing of the GOP leadership, Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican who leads of the House Appropriations Committee, plans to attach a provision that would halt the port deal to legislation funding hurricane relief and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We do not believe the U.S. should allow a state-owned company to run American ports," said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

The GOP leadership is setting up a confrontation with the White House by attaching Lewis' measure to the $91 billion emergency spending bill, which is expected to reach the House floor next week.

Bush has threatened to veto any legislation attempting to block Dubai Ports World's purchase of port operations in New Orleans, Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Newark, N.J., from Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a private British company. The $6.8 billion deal, which includes port operations around the world, is expected to be completed this week.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last night that the administration has "ensured open and sincere lines of communication with Congress" on the matter but that "the president's position hasn't changed."

For the past few weeks, legislators from both parties have criticized the sale, which was examined and approved by an interagency panel - including representatives of the Defense and Homeland Security departments - that determines whether national security might be compromised when foreign companies seek to purchase or invest in U.S. operations.

In response, Dubai Ports World, which is owned by one of the sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, agreed last month to a new 45-day review of the implications of its deal on U.S. security. It also agreed to postpone hands-on operation of the disputed terminals until the review was completed.

Neither action has calmed the political storm.

"This is a very big political problem," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said yesterday. "It's inevitable that we're going to speak in some way."

As Lewis was preparing his proposal, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation that would not kill the deal and prevent foreign companies from controlling facilities deemed critical to the U.S. economy and national security.

"It will probably include ports. It will probably include some power plants and other things," Hunter told CNN yesterday.

Under his proposal, once the secretaries of defense and homeland security determined what was critical infrastructure, "that infrastructure has to be owned, managed and operated by Americans."

It was not clear whether the Senate would go along with the House in acting to block the port deal before the 45-day security review is complete.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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