WASHINGTON — Under persistent fire in recent weeks for secrecy and failing to communicate with lawmakers, President Bush now faces a stern political test -- quelling a Republican revolt over his decision to allow an Arab company to manage terminals at six major U.S. ports.
The White House failed Wednesday to placate its Republican critics, who pressed ahead with legislative plans to delay -- and perhaps thwart -- the port deal. Their efforts are a direct affront to Bush's vow to veto such a measure and a sharp departure from the unity that has typified relations between the administration and GOP congressional leaders.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in defending the deal Wednesday, disclosed that Bush had learned of it only in the past "several days" from media reports. At that point, representatives of several Cabinet offices already had approved the transaction, as required by U.S. law.
McClellan said Bush had reviewed the matter and agreed that the deal involving a state-owned company in Dubai -- part of the United Arab Emirates -- would not jeopardize U.S. security interests.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 97 words Type of Material: Correction
Port security -- An article in Thursday's Section A on security fears raised by Dubai Ports World's bid to buy Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. incorrectly said the Arab company would be taking over the operation of cargo terminals at six U.S. ports. The Port of New York and New Jersey was incorrectly listed as two separate ports. At the Port of New York and New Jersey, P&O operates a cargo terminal in Newark, N.J., and a cruise ship terminal in Manhattan. P&O operates cargo terminals at four other ports on the East and Gulf coasts.
But a number of lawmakers said the White House had underestimated public reaction to the deal, particularly given the emphasis Bush and his aides had placed on his vigilance in confronting the terrorism threat.
"This thing hit a fever pitch in my district," Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) said. "To my constituents, when we're trying so hard to secure our borders and secure our ports, and then to hear this -- there's just a lot of concern that we're two steps forward, three steps backward."
Of Bush's threat to veto any bill delaying the port deal until its security implications could be examined more closely, she said, "The American people and the Congress are against him on this."
Other Republicans, pushing for a vote as early as next week on postponing the deal, emphasized that they would seek to override what would be the first veto of Bush's presidency.
"I will fight harder than ever for this legislation, and if it is vetoed, I will fight as hard as I can to override it," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the issue today, the first of several planned on Capitol Hill in the coming days.
In the face of escalating dissent over the port decision, Bush issued his threat Tuesday to veto any move by Congress to try to block the deal. He also suggested critics were showing a bias against a Middle Eastern country.
On Wednesday, McClellan sought to characterize the critics as ill-informed. He argued that media reports had left the "false impression" that an Arab country would handle security at ports in New York; Newark, N.J.; Miami; Philadelphia; New Orleans; and Baltimore.
Under the agreement, Dubai Ports World would supervise shipping operations at these U.S. ports as part of its $6.8-billion takeover of a British firm.
Port security would still be handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Customs Service.
The deal was announced late last year and approved this month by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, whose members include midlevel officials of the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
McClellan said the committee's decision was viewed as a routine matter that did not "rise to the presidential level."
But McClellan conceded that "in hindsight, when you look at this and the coverage that it's received and the false impression that it has left with some, we probably should have briefed members of Congress about it sooner."
The uproar over the port deal marked perhaps the sharpest divide between Bush and his party since he nominated White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court in October -- a choice he withdrew under pressure.
Public skepticism about the Miers appointment was expressed mostly by conservative opinion leaders.
On the port deal, Bush also is being opposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and the Republican governors of New York and Maryland.
Several Republicans said the administration should have been more attuned to the deal's political overtones, especially in light of public concerns about national security that the White House had helped foster.
Last month, White House political strategist Karl Rove predicted that security would be a driving force in this year's midterm elections, arguing that Republicans have a "post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview."
Against this backdrop, the administration "should have recognized that there was going to be a problem" with acceptance of the port deal, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "It seems to me that they have a tin ear someplace within the administration."