- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Dubai ports crisis appears to be over, but the issue is not likely to go away.

Members of both parties say changes are needed in the way the government approves such agreements, and Democrats are using the deal — and port security in general — to criticize Republicans during this election year.

President Bush repeatedly defended the deal, which caused a firestorm among lawmakers and the public, who were concerned about allowing a company from the United Arab Emirates, which had some links to the September 11 terrorists, to operate terminals at six U.S. ports.

“The American people have been shocked by what this administration has been doing, and we can run through the list of things that the American people have come to realize is basic incompetence: Katrina, prescription drugs, the war in Iraq, Leave No Child Behind — and, of course, now this Dubai port scandal,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said on Thursday.

Facing staunch bipartisan opposition from Congress, United Arab Emirates-based DP World on Thursday agreed to back off and transfer its U.S. operations to an American firm.

The skirmish has allowed Democrats to push the argument that Republicans are incompetent on the issue of port security.

“It isn’t a question of Democrats whipping this up,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat. The Dubai situation “demonstrates how in this important area, the Republicans were not doing a good job.”

Mr. Levin said Democrats have been trying for years to get more money for cargo inspection at ports and that Republicans “have always turned their back on it.”

But Republicans say Democrats are fighting a losing battle if they try to claim an upper hand on security issues.

“The Democrats are not going to make any hay out of this,” said Rep. Zach Wamp, Tennessee Republican. “We’re not going to cede one inch to them on who can best provide security to our country, here or abroad.”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres agreed.

“Democrats are dreaming if they think this is going to somehow make them the party of national security,” Mr. Ayres said.

He said the public won’t fault congressional Republicans for the Dubai deal because it’s clear that they stood forcefully against it and helped to defeat it.

“I don’t see how they have an issue,” Mr. Ayres said of Democrats.

But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, went on the attack last week, saying Republicans were “forced” to break with Mr. Bush because of the public outcry.

“They didn’t do it at their own volition,” said Mr. Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He argued that a Democrat-run Congress “is needed to watch over a president who is moving in the wrong direction.”

Democratic strategist Jenny Backus said Democrats should continue pressing the issues of port security and the Dubai deal. Republicans, she predicted, will be hurt this election year because of Mr. Bush’s staunch defense of the deal, which most Americans opposed as too risky.

“Bush’s stubbornness is going to cost a huge price,” she said, adding that it “pierced more than a few chinks in the Republicans’ national-security armor.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to leave their break with Mr. Bush over the DP World deal behind while pushing forward on key issues that it raised.

They plan legislation in both chambers to revamp the interagency panel that approves such foreign deals, mandating more thorough reviews and congressional involvement. “That’s definitely going to happen,” said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce, Ohio Republican.

And Senate Republicans also have begun to push bipartisan port-security legislation. House Republicans will follow suit with a similar bipartisan bill. Both groups were working on the bills before the Dubai deal emerged.

While some Republicans complained about Mr. Bush’s handling of the DP World deal, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said the situation is behind them now and members must focus on the accomplishments of the president and of the Republican-led Congress.

“It’s been our policies that have driven this economy,” he said Friday, noting recent economic gains. He said Congress also has worked closely and successfully with the president on security issues, and that Democrats will take any situation and “use it to their political advantage.”

“All they’re trying to do is play politics,” Mr. Hastert said.

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