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Bush Threatens Veto Against Bid To Stop Port Deal

In recent days, Hastert and other GOP leaders had sent word to the White House that conservative lawmakers and voters are furious over the notion that a country with terrorism links -- even if indirect ones -- would be managing U.S. seaports. On C-SPAN, Fox News and conservative talk radio, Republicans from across the country are criticizing Bush with an intensity rarely seen by this White House.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) went to Dundalk yesterday to discuss the deal with leaders of the labor union that represents port workers and to issue a warning. "Job one is public safety," Ehrlich said, calling it "paramount during a time of war, a terror war, a nontraditional war."

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), second from left, told union leaders a port deal with a United Arab Emirates firm needs to be reviewed further. With him were state officials Robert Flanagan, left, Brooks Royster and Chip DePaula.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), second from left, told union leaders a port deal with a United Arab Emirates firm needs to be reviewed further. With him were state officials Robert Flanagan, left, Brooks Royster and Chip DePaula. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

Ehrlich stopped short of saying he would seek to have Maryland, which controls the Baltimore port, break its contracts to scuttle the deal. He said more review of the deal is needed.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats rushed throughout the day to endorse a plan to impose a 45-day review of the purchase. "If the president insists on using his first veto on this bill, Congress should give him the opportunity to do so," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who, along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has promised legislation to ban companies owned by foreign governments from controlling operations at U.S. ports.

Republicans who had previously spoken out against the port deal appeared just as undeterred. "I'm not changing my mind," said Rep. Vito Fossella (N.Y.), who said a legislative showdown now appears inevitable. "The momentum is there. The genie is out of the bottle."

GOP leaders are also fuming that they had not been consulted on an issue with such obvious political implications. "It's strange that the administration didn't consult Congress," a Republican leadership aide said. "They might not have had to, but it was going to be a big deal on Capitol Hill. To not know that is mystifying."

Minutes after the president's veto threat came to the GOP leadership's attention, Hastert sent a letter to Bush calling for "an immediate moratorium" on the deal and a more thorough administration review.

"Finally, this proposal may require additional Congressional action in order to ensure that we are fully protecting Americans at home," Hastert wrote.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) said last night that he will convene his panel today for a public briefing to be led by Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt and five other administration officials involved in the security review of the deal. Warner was briefed yesterday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The senator pronounced himself satisfied that procedure was followed on the deal.

But he said he would withhold judgment on the deal's national security implications until after today's briefing. The United Arab Emirates provides docking rights for more U.S. Navy ships than any other nation in the region, Warner noted. He added: "If they say they have not been treated fairly in this, we run the risk of them pulling back some of that support at a critical time of the war."

The deal has already passed muster with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a secretive 12-member board that includes Cabinet members and White House officials. The panel operates behind closed doors, with little or no consultation with Congress.

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.


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