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Senate leader says ports deal could still move forward if buyer isn't found
WASHINGTON -- Congress will closely watch a Dubai-owned company to be sure it transfers its U.S. port operations to an American company, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Sunday.
But Frist, R-Tenn., acknowledged that if an American buyer is not found, and the Bush administration determines there are no security risks, a deal for DP World to manage and operate major U.S. ports still could go through.
"If everything that the president, the administration has said, and that is that there is absolutely no threatening or jeopardy to our security and safety of the American people ... I don't see how the deal would have to be canceled," Frist said on ABC's "This Week."
DP World pledged last week to fully transfer its U.S. port operations amid growing congressional resistance to its $6.8 billion purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. The British company handles significant operations at ports in New Jersey, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia -- plus lesser dockside activities at 16 other ports in this country.
DP World said the divestiture was "based on an understanding that DP World will not suffer economic loss." Some analysts have suggested finding a U.S. buyer willing to pay the $700 million that DP World wants might be difficult.
President Bush strongly defended the deal involving the United Arab Emirates-based company and said the UAE is a valuable ally in the fight against terrorism.
Many lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, pointed to the UAE's role as an operational and financial base for hijackers in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said they opposed having a company owned by a foreign government run operations at ports vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Frist said he hopes a U.S. panel headed by the Treasury Department, known as the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, will continue with its 45-day review of the deal's potential security risks. The panel previously approved the deal after a routine, 30-day review. Frist declined to say whether he would support killing the deal should DP World fail to find a suitable buyer.
"We have to wait and see if they're going to do it," Frist said. "I would still encourage the CFIUS process to stay under way in the event they don't, so that we, in the event it doesn't work out, it's not a total separation, they can't find a buyer, that we can act and act accordingly."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said: "The deal is over. We have the leader of the UAE, the prime minister, and indeed our government now working to pull it and get it off the books. And it looks like in every respect a total divestiture."
Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has acted as an important go-between for DP World and the administration. On behalf of DP World, Warner previously announced the company's offer to submit to an unusual, broader security review over the deal and then last week, in the full Senate, he announced its decision to transfer its U.S. operations to an American company.
"We've got to wait and see how that's achieved," Warner told CNN's "Late Edition."
"But I do not think Congress should take any more action on this ports issue. Put its attention on legislation to strengthen port security and to rewrite the CFIUS law," he said.