White House lacks Senate liaison

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One detail of the Dubai port imbroglio may go a long way toward explaining how the Bush administration got itself into a public relations debacle: The White House has no Senate liaison.

“The fact that no one in the White House or the six different Cabinet-level offices who had to approve of this could see the firestorm this has become is curious,” Republican consultant Rich Galen said yesterday.

Until earlier this month, the Senate liaison job belonged to Matthew Kirk. Mr. Kirk left his job as deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs Feb. 3 to become vice president of federal affairs for the Hartford, a Connecticut-based lobbying firm. No official announcement has been made on a replacement for Mr. Kirk, White House officials said yesterday.

Republican senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and David Vitter of Louisiana, have expressed opposition to the proposal to outsource commercial operations at six U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said he was “not aware of any contact” from either the White House or Treasury Department before the port proposal was announced.

“There was no communication on this issue,” said another Senate Republican aide, who wished to remain anonymous. “And if you watch the reaction to this from our own caucus, you’re going to see a big push for more transparency and better communication from the White House.”

Mr. Kirk’s first official day on the job with Hartford was Monday, the firm said. Mr. Kirk declined an interview request from The Washington Times.

Mr. Galen compared the absence of a Senate liaison as a factor in the uproar over the Dubai deal to the press furor over Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent hunting accident.

“Steve Schmidt had just left his job with Cheney,” Mr. Galen said, referring to the vice president’s former press relations aide, who has joined California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election team. “There was no one on the ground to handle it properly. I think you’re seeing the same thing here. Republicans in Congress I heard from were embarrassed by their ignorance on this issue, and that just made an already bad situation worse.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday defended the Dubai deal.

“The counterterrorism experts looked at it,” he told reporters. “The intelligence community did assessments to make sure there was no national security threat.”

Mr. McClellan did not address whether the assessment process included Republican senators, but another administration official, asked whether anyone from the White House had communicated with senators about the proposal, said, “I think that would be the Treasury Department’s job.”

The Treasury Department did not respond to an interview request.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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