Panel spurns port deal

GOP-controlled House committee defies president

March 09, 2006|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- In a rare slap at President Bush, a powerful Republican-controlled House committee voted overwhelmingly yesterday to torpedo a deal allowing a United Arab Emirates company to take control of some operations at the port of Baltimore and five other major seaports.

House Republicans, wary of ceding the pivotal issue of national security to Democrats in an election year, ignored a veto threat from Bush to approve, 62-2, a measure that would bar Dubai Ports World from taking over leases or contracts at U.S. ports.

The unusual rebellion against Bush reflected outrage among voters nationwide over the prospect of giving control of some American port operations to a company owned by the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates - outrage that the White House has been unable to quell despite three weeks of effort.

"This is a national security issue," said the House Appropriations Committee's chairman, Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. "We want to make sure that the security of America's ports is in American hands."

The provision, which would effectively kill the deal, is now attached to a $91 billion supplemental spending bill that is considered must-pass legislation because it provides $67 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $19 billion to help the people and states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

It is expected to reach the House floor next week.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that the White House is committed to selling Congress on the deal and Bush remains steadfast in his support of the sale.

"The president's position is unchanged," he said.

Bush has not vetoed a bill during his time in office, and Lewis said it was not his intention to trigger a veto by pushing his amendment. But he said there was little doubt where the House stands.

"If others don't get it, our constituents do," he said.

Senate differs

A similar effort in the Senate to kill the deal fell short yesterday.

When Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, tried to force a vote, irate Republican leaders blocked it. Schumer and other Democrats said they would keep pressing the issue, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and some other Republicans want to let an administration investigation of the deal unfold.

The Senate is not scheduled to consider the House spending bill for several weeks - close to the time the latest review of the deal should be completed.

DP World's acquisition of British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. has roiled Congress since the news broke last month that a committee designated by the White House had deemed the sale no threat to national security.

Under intense pressure from lawmakers and the public, DP World agreed to submit to a second, more in-depth review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

The company also agreed to segregate the American holdings involved in the $6.8 billion international transaction until the 45-day review is over, or May 1. In addition to Baltimore, P&O runs some major operations in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami and New Orleans, and it has smaller holdings at ports from Maine to Texas.

Outcry continues

The compromise has barely affected the outcry. Legislative proposals are flying around Capitol Hill, suggesting everything from blocking the DP World acquisition to requiring all foreign companies to sell their holdings in U.S. seaports.

Polls show that management of U.S. ports by foreign companies is wildly unpopular with the public, and several lawmakers have said the outcry from their constituents is unprecedented.

Lewis called his proposal "a rifle shot crack" to block the deal. An additional amendment, which would have changed the process by which foreign purchases affecting strategic U.S. interests are examined, was defeated.

Some lawmakers said it was premature to try to block the deal. Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona said the eagerness to scuttle it was a distraction from the larger, and more important, issue of security at U.S. ports.

"America's ports are going to be just as secure - or insecure - after we pass this amendment as they were before we passed it," he said.

Kolbe and Virginia Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat, voted against Lewis' amendment.

But others said that while the process needs reform, Congress should act now to stop DP World from working in ports.

"My constituents come up to me and say, `Why is any port being run by any foreign entity?"' said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat. "I wonder why America can't run its own ports."

Whether the Senate will go along with the House's gambit is uncertain. A bipartisan group of senators has warned the White House that it must be more forthcoming about the details of the latest review or face rejection of the deal by Congress.

But with the House pushing ahead, some Democrats - as evidenced by yesterday's push for a quick vote - have been unwilling to wait.

Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin, of Illinois, said that Frist "can run, but he can't hide" from the public's anger over the deal.

"This boat is docked. And this boat is docked with the American people," Durbin said. "And they understand that we are going to have to get on or get off."

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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