Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Bush administration went from full-speed-ahead veto threat over the ports deal Tuesday to welcoming a delay two days later.

The change of strategy came after top officials said they didn’t know about the deal until they read about it in the newspapers, and Republicans in Congress threatened to join Democrats to override a presidential veto.

By then, state-owned Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates had agreed to delay taking over operations at six major U.S. ports, scheduled for March 2 under a deal to buy Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., an old-line British company.

The White House says it hasn’t backed down under pressure, that embracing a “slight delay” merely allows the administration more time to make a case to Congress.

But other Republicans say the administration had no choice but to change course from President Bush’s threat Tuesday to veto efforts to block the deal. The delay is intended to save several prominent faces.

“The veto became a chicken game I think they realized they could not win,” one senior Republican congressional aide says. “It seemed they were walking back from it even before Air Force One touched down [at Andrews Air Force Base].”

Mr. Bush threatened the veto — which would be his first — in response to a question from reporters aboard Air Force One. Just minutes later, in brief remarks before television cameras, the president did not repeat that threat.

A Republican strategist familiar with the back-and-forth between Congress and the White House describes the threat as a “surprise reaction” on Mr. Bush’s part. Even so, the strategist says, congressional aides had warned the White House on Monday that the deal would not go down well among Republican members of Congress.

By Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said the deal should be blocked pending a thorough review and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois joined in the call for a delay. Just about every Republican committee or subcommittee chairman who could claim jurisdiction pledged hearings or an investigation.

Adding to the confusion, top Bush Cabinet secretaries whose departments are part of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the official review process, said they didn’t know about the deal until after it had been approved.

Governors from both parties criticized Mr. Bush’s handling of the matter.

Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican and usually an administration loyalist, thinks it may be too late for Mr. Bush to win congressional acceptance of the contract.

“This may be one of those situations where the horse may be so far out of the barn that you can’t get it back,” Mr. Huckabee said.

He isn’t necessarily opposed to the deal, the governor said, but thinks the president should have made his case beforehand.

By Wednesday, Republicans in Congress were talking about overriding a veto, and the administration was casting about for wiggle room. “Do you really want your first veto to be on vetoing a security issue?” said the Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, the White House first mentioned the possibility of a delay — which the Dubai company agreed to late that day. But the White House insists that it remains committed to the deal.

“Nothing has changed, in terms of what the president has said,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Friday. “But some additional time to brief members of Congress about the facts is helpful, and we believe, as they learn more about the facts, that they will feel more comfortable with the transaction proceeding forward.”

Mr. McClellan said the veto threat was aimed specifically at bills to block the deal, not place it on hold.

A senior Republican with close ties to the White House says the administration is parsing words to ease the fallout.

“They can say that the veto threat referred only to legislation from Congress to block the deal, but remember, the president also told lawmakers to listen to him and not fight him on this. No lawmakers have changed their mind; only the president has altered his position.”

Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.

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