Legacy of ports flap: Bush-Congress rift

Dubai Ports World gave up its bid for six US terminals Thursday, but lawmakers eye other foreign acquisitions.

The brouhaha over the now-squelched Dubai ports deal is subsiding, but the issue lives on - politically and substantively.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, all with an eye trained on the November midterm elections, aren't finished making their points on the deal that would have turned management of terminals in six major US ports over to a firm owned by Dubai, a Persian Gulf emirate.

As early as this week, House Republican leaders will put forth legislation that would require congressional oversight of the foreign acquisition of US businesses. In addition, House leaders are still planning a vote this week by the full House to reject the deal - even though Dubai Ports World has already announced that it will sell those assets to a "US entity."

Republican members remain eager to air their views in the congressional record. This represents a noteworthy rebuke by fellow Republicans of President Bush, who continues to defend the original deal and praise the United Arab Emirates as "a committed ally in the war on terror," as he told newspaper editors on Friday.

Democrats, for their part, remain skeptical that Dubai will indeed fully divest itself of any role in the operation of the six ports, and they plan to keep pushing the issue. They are also demanding that the White House release documents on the defunct deal. Politically, Democrats hope the Dubai ports issue will have legs until November, reminding voters in congressional races that the leader of the Republicans - Mr. Bush - defended a deal that most Americans opposed as threatening to national security.

But in the political fallout from Dubai Ports World, most striking was the breach it caused in Bush's relations with congressional Republicans.

"It demonstrated to the public for the first time that Bush no longer controls his own party in Congress," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "That's a mark of leadership that people do pay attention to."

Some analysts say the clash between the president and members of his own party in Congress was bound to happen sooner or later - and that Bush's five-plus years of unity lasted longer than for most presidents, aided by 9/11 and the wars that have followed.

Bush has yet to veto a bill sent to him by the Republican-controlled Congress. In contrast, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt vetoed hundreds of bills by a Congress controlled by Democrats.

Once again, Bush has avoided having to follow through on a veto threat. He's also avoided further scrutiny of the deal from members of his own party. "Even if [Republicans] were willing to stick a finger in his eye, they won't hold the searching oversight hearings now on how this whole thing came about," says Norman Ornstein, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ultimately, analysts say, the Dubai ports flap presented a teachable moment for Republicans in Washington - that they need to be alert for issues that can catch fire in the grass roots. Bush also faces the political reality of a president who has watched his political capital from reelection draw down as his job-approval ratings remain at best in the low 40s or, in some polls, well down in the 30s.

The support of his fellow Republicans will not be automatic, as it was through much of the first term, observers say. "He's going to have to work a lot harder for it," says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. And it's not just Bush who has to consult more with Congress; it's all White House hands on deck, "from Bush down to the interns," says Professor Pitney. "They just need to realize that congressional relations is a selling job."

Bush could also increase his clout with House Republicans by boosting his job approval with the public, a task that's easier said than done, says Professor Sabato. Touting the nation's strong economy on a daily basis would be a start, he says.

Starting Monday, Bush will give speeches aimed at explaining Iraq war strategy. But just as the Dubai controversy subsides, another bizarre story has hit the headlines: Last Thursday, the recently resigned White House domestic policy chief, Claude Allen, was arrested on felony theft charges in a phony refund scheme at two stores.

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