- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

A bipartisan group of senators yesterday threatened to take away from President Bush final say over a Dubai-owned company’s bid to operate in U.S. ports, sending a warning shot at the White House that has repeatedly defended the deal.

Several senators — including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican — said that if they are not satisfied with the new executive branch review of the ports deal, they will push legislation giving Congress the ability to kill it.

“If we don’t like it, we will have a right to say yes or no,” said Mr. Coleman, one of many legislators from both parties who have raised security concerns over allowing a government in the United Arab Emirates, a country with past ties to terror leader Osama bin Laden, to run terminals in U.S. ports.

“This is not an issue that’s going to get swept under the rug,” he said, though he stressed that he has not made a final decision on the deal.

Mr. Bush is the final arbiter of the new, 45-day review of DP World’s $6.8 billion bid to purchase terminal operations in major U.S. ports from a British company. Initial approval of the deal two weeks ago by an interagency committee caught the Bush administration and legislators off guard.

Mr. Bush has said that he will veto any legislative effort to block the deal and that it does not pose any national-security problems.

Meanwhile, in a setback for New Jersey, a federal judge yesterday refused to order an investigation into the deal that would put DP World in charge of some Newark terminals.

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares also said the state cannot see documents the company gave to a federal committee reviewing the deal. The judge said the state “needs to show an immediate need for those documents.”

Under the $6.8 billion deal, DP World will take over major commercial operations from a privately owned British company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., at ports in New York, Newark, Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Schumer said the group of lawmakers wants to ensure that the final report is fully vetted with lawmakers and the public. The lawmakers hope to work out a bipartisan process with Senate leaders to address those concerns, “but if not, we will seek a vote on the floor,” he said.

Mr. Schumer said a vote on that bill may be needed before the 45 days is up. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is part of the group, agrees.

“He thinks there should be some Senate action before that,” said spokesman John Hart.

Mr. Coleman, however, says Congress should wait until the 45 days is up before the group decides whether to act.

Whatever the outcome of the DP World deal, the situation is spurring broader debate over improving port security and making structural changes to the interagency panel that approves such port-related deals.

“I believe there is a lot of energy and momentum to get a lot more serious” about these broader topics, said Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican.

A House panel held the first hearing yesterday on the role of the interagency panel that approves such port deals — the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). None of the CFIUS members, including six Cabinet secretaries — most represented at the review by underlings — objected to the deal, which Mr. Bush did not know about until after its approval.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, are already pushing legislation to reform the panel.

Rep. Donald Manzullo, Illinois Republican, is working on legislation that would put the Commerce Department in control of CFIUS, which is currently under the Treasury Department.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, Maine Republican, has suggested that CFIUS should be under the Homeland Security Department.

Mr. Martinez says intelligence agencies probably should be included as part of the panel, which already includes 12 agencies.

During the House hearing yesterday, Robert M. Kimmitt, deputy secretary of the Treasury, stood by the CFIUS approval of the Dubai deal, but said the panel should improve communication with Congress. He also was open to including the national intelligence director on the panel.

Meanwhile, several lawmakers are focusing their efforts on port security. Reps. E. Clay Shaw Jr., Florida Republican, and Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, introduced a bill yesterday that would ban foreign-government-controlled entities from operating seaports in the U.S.

Mr. Coleman suggests allowing such state-owned entities to own and invest in U.S. terminal operations, but prohibiting them from managing the terminals on a day-to-day basis.

In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first governor to say he would try to block the deal, yesterday declined to comment on the New Jersey litigation.

But an Ehrlich spokesman stressed that the governor “is not satisfied” with administration assurances that port security will not be compromised and that he has not ruled out any options if the congressional probe does not satisfy his misgivings about the deal.

S.A. Miller contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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