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Bush defiance on ports deal fuels criticism from both sides of aisle

Thursday, February 23, 2006

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's marquee issue, the war on terror, is being turned against him by Democrats and rebelling members of his own party in an election-year dustup over a deal that allows an Arab company to manage major U.S. ports.

People in both parties are suggesting it's another case of Bush seeming to be tone deaf to controversy -- on top of government eavesdropping, Katrina recovery and Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

The storm is forcing the president to choose between losing face with the Arab world and embarking on what would be his first veto battle with the GOP-led Congress. And it has enabled Democrats to seemingly outflank him on a key GOP issue: national security.

Has Bush lost his way politically -- or at least his touch?

"In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just NO -- but HELL NO," conservative Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., wrote Bush in a terse letter on Wednesday that she also posted on her Web site.

No matter that no American port is actually being sold, Bush faces a spreading rebellion among Republicans, Democrats and port-state governors.

"I think somebody dropped the ball," said Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y. "Information should have flowed more freely and more quickly up into the White House. I think it has been mishandled in terms of coming forward with adequate information."

At issue: Bush's strong defense of an arrangement that would put a government-owned United Arab Emirates company in charge of major shipping operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

The deal transferring port management from a British firm to Dubai Ports World has already been approved by both companies and an administration review panel.

Despite Bush's assertion that UAE has been one of the most helpful Arab countries in the war on terror, both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois threatened legislation to put the deal on hold. Bush, in turn, vowed to cast his first veto -- if necessary -- to stop any such attempt.

"It's a strange thing for Bush to have slipped into, given the savvy you expected from this administration, with a vice president who spent over a decade on Capitol Hill," said Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein. "It seems as if his people would have seen that there was potential for trouble, and at least done their homework on the Hill."

Although a veto showdown could still be avoided, port-deal opponents were optimistic they could muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override one. "This deal doesn't pass the national security test. I think it is a mistake," said Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., chairman of a House subcommittee on terrorism threats.

Bush learned about the arrangement himself only in recent days amid increasing news coverage, said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.

While Bush had struck a defiant tone on Tuesday in back-to-back sessions with reporters on Air Force One and outside the White House, McClellan on Wednesday acknowledged Congress should have been briefed earlier "given all the attention that has been focused on this and given the fact that it has been mischaracterized."

The phrase "tone deaf" to describe Bush's interaction with Congress was uttered by lawmakers as politically different as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph Biden, D-Del.

The Dubai Ports deal "is not a national security issue," suggested GOP consultant Rich Galen. "It is an issue of this administration having a continuing problem with understanding how these things will play in the public's mind and not taking steps to set the stage so these things don't come as a shock and are presented in their worst possible light."

With Bush's ratings stuck at about 40 percent, the incident is one more major distraction to his efforts to focus on his second-term domestic agenda.

Syndicated radio host Laura Ingraham was among the conservatives criticizing the deal, asking on her Wednesday program, "How do we know people they're hiring are passing background checks?"

The dispute brought to mind a 1999 flap when conservatives admonished the Clinton administration for acquiescing on Panama's awarding of a contract to a China company, Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., to run ports at both ends of the Panama Canal.

But then, almost all the criticism was from Republicans. Now, it's bipartisan.

"I think there are certain things you have to be really worried about. And one of them is port safety," said Robert O. Boorstein, a senior national security aide in the Clinton White House.

"You have to call it an incredible tin ear that this administration could do that, with nobody stopping and saying, 'excuse me?' said Boorstein, now with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.


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