The head of DP World yesterday sought to assure senators that his Dubai-based company’s takeover of terminal operations at six U.S. ports would pose no threat and would even enhance U.S. security.
“We are not ‘acquiring’ or ‘taking over’ U.S. ports, as some people claimed,” Edward H. Bilkey, chief operating officer of the company, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday. “We are very concerned with the security of the U.S. and actually are a great partner with them.”
But his words failed to reassure some senators.
“These port operators are intricately involved in port security,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, told him. “I think this whole deal is fraught with danger, and I’m going to oppose” it.
“I think this proposal is nuts,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.
President Bush yesterday stood by the deal, under which a British company would sell to DP World the right to operate terminals in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Newark, N.J.
“If there was any doubt in my mind or people in my administration’s mind that our ports would be less secure and the American people in danger, this deal wouldn’t go forward,” he said.
The deal caused an uproar among lawmakers and the public last week, prompting Democrats to seize on the administration’s approval of the deal as a political issue in an election year.
DP World agreed over the weekend to a new 45-day national security review, and many Republicans yesterday tried to cool the situation, urging colleagues to calm down and collect all the information before condemning the deal.
“As we learn more of the facts, I think we can see more of the justification here,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican and member of the commerce panel.
“It is a very complex issue, and we need to act like adults,” said Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, initially had been critical of the deal, but he backed off some yesterday, saying he has more information now and had been privately briefed by administration officials.
“As I’ve gotten more information, I have a greater comfort level,” he said, adding that he would not bring legislation to the floor while the security review takes place but that Congress still has a crucial oversight role to play in this period.
A House Republican aide put it more bluntly, saying that House Republican leaders will be watching to see how well the White House can sell the deal to the American people and to what extent the administration allows Congress to participate in the review process.
“If those things aren’t achieved, then it doesn’t look good for the deal,” the aide said.