Port flap serious test for Bush

Both parties in Congress call for more oversight - and this time, the public seems to agree.

Cooler heads are beginning to prevail. A week that began with veto threats from President Bush and sharp language aimed right back from Republicans has turned to sober briefings and a consideration of the facts.

But as the flap unfolds over a deal to transfer management of six major US ports to a Middle Eastern company, Mr. Bush faces a serious test of his political skill after blundering in dealings with members of his own party, analysts say. The man who once campaigned as a uniter appears to have done just that - uniting both parties against him.

And once again, in the wake of the furor over warrantless wiretapping, the White House and Congress are at loggerheads over national security, specifically over how much the executive branch needs to consult with legislators and submit to oversight. The difference is that, this time, the American public has latched onto the issue, and opposes the president's position.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting Thursday morning, Bush offered reassurances that the ports-management deal involving a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai Ports World, would not jeopardize American security. He also echoed Wednesday's comment from his press secretary that the White House "probably should have briefed Congress about [the deal] sooner."

"We'll continue to talk to people in Congress and explain clearly why the decision was made," Bush said Thursday, referring to a "sense of calm" that cabinet members are bringing to the issue.

Soon after, the Senate Armed Services Committee received an open briefing by several federal departments and agencies involved in the ports deal.

Bush is juggling many interests as he seeks to tamp down the controversy. On the world stage, he is keen on promoting American interests in the globalized economy. In the war on terror, he needs friends around the world, calling the UAE a "valuable ally." Domestically, with his political capital low, he needs to maintain a good working relationship with Congress in order to further his agenda. And with the American people, he cannot afford to sink any lower in job approval, lest he turn himself into a liability in the Republican battle to maintain control of Congress.

Homeland security is Bush's strongest issue in the polls, and at the beginning of the week, he had appeared to jeopardize that strength by taking the unpopular position on the ports deal.

"There's an inherent American fear that their ports are vulnerable and they are made even more so by this deal," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "Whether it's based on facts or fears is another matter, but it's real and it's bipartisan and it's visceral.... This is one of those rare moments where the Democrats are handed a wedge issue against Republicans on national security. They're not going to give the administration any leeway."

The unfortunate fact for Bush is that, while he counts the UAE as a loyal friend in the war on terror, two of the 9/11 hijackers came from there. The 9/11 Commission report states that "the vast majority of the money funding the Sept. 11 attacks flowed through the UAE."

The US federal agencies in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, which vetted the sale of the management of six US ports - in New York, Newark, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Miami - had concluded that Dubai Ports World (which is owned by the government of Dubai, one of the UAE emirates) would have no bearing on security at the ports. Security is handled by the US Coast Guard and Customs Service. It has been revealed that the Dubai company agreed to special provisions aimed at ensuring US security.

Analysts doubt the conflict between Bush and Congress will reach the point of a presidential veto of a bill to overturn or inject more oversight into the UAE deal. After more than five years in office, Bush has yet to veto a single bill, and it hardly makes sense politically for the first veto to come on a piece of national security legislation supported by most of the Republican Party, Mr. Wittmann says.

The sense that a veto will be averted was reflected in a comment Wednesday by Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on Fox News: "I anticipate that the views of the commander in chief will eventually prevail, and that the country will settle back and suddenly realize - maybe not suddenly, but gradually realize - that the administration did the right thing."

What continues to strike political analysts is how Bush handled the controversy when it first burst forth. The White House has acknowledged that Bush was not in on the decision, but under the approval process laid out in the 1975 law that established the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the president's direct involvement was not required.

Still, having found out that the port-management sale by a British firm to Dubai World Ports could bring negative political fallout, Bush jumped in with a threat to veto any legislation killing or delaying the deal.

"He nailed his colors to the mast in a way that was striking," says James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "Politically, it might have been wise, once Bush found out, to touch base [with Congress] instead of jumping out in front of it."

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