Friday, March 10, 2006

The ports deal was bungled from the beginning, but it became doomed after congressional offices were flooded with calls and the news began to crowd out the rest of Republicans’ agenda.

“I don’t know if we do a postmortem or the rigor mortis on this,” said Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican and one of the earliest opponents.

He said the calls to his office were so overwhelming that it was comparable to when Republicans impeached President Clinton. But that time opinion was divided, whereas for the ports deal there was a “universal audience of antagonism — ‘What are you all thinking of up there?’ ”

Lawmakers yesterday were waiting to see exactly how DP World planned to divest itself of operations at six U.S. ports, and many said the issue will not go away.

In the meantime, they said, the deal was a wake-up call to Congress and to President Bush, who they said was ill-served by his administration because staffers didn’t see the political context and didn’t bring it to the attention of top-level officials.

“Considering we live in a dangerous world and remain a nation at war, the fact that a sale of this magnitude can be fully vetted and approved without the knowledge of one Cabinet secretary, Congress or the president is a clear indication that the system is broken,” said Rep. J. Gresham Barrett, South Carolina Republican.

The issue gave Democrats a chance to try to position themselves as stronger on national security than the president, and left Republicans worrying about sending mixed messages on the one issue they thought they had a lock on.

More than two weeks ago, Mr. Bush told reporters if he was presented with a bill blocking the deal, “I’ll deal with it, with a veto.”

But he found himself in the line of fire from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans seemed to accept a new 45-day investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), but House Republicans — all of whom are up for re-election in November — wanted the deal blocked outright.

House Republicans openly talked about overriding a veto and set up such a confrontation Wednesday, pushing for an amendment to the emergency war-spending bill that would block the DP World deal. It passed 62-2 in the House Appropriations Committee, with just one Republican and one Democrat opposed.

Yesterday, minutes before the divestiture was announced, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration was not looking for a confrontation with Congress.

“Our emphasis is on not trying to draw lines or issue veto threats, it’s on how we can work together and move forward,” he said.

Republicans in Congress and the White House said the ports deal is an isolated issue and they don’t see it as the beginning of a full revolt against the president. And one administration official said the issue would have limited impact, while political problems facing Democrats are far broader.

“This port security issue is a narrow matter whereas it is the Republican Party that has strong cohesiveness, shared priorities, and that’s what it takes to get results and to win elections,” the official said.

Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, said the ports issue had begun to crowd out the rest of the House agenda, such as spending cuts, Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and cracking down on illegal immigration.

The issue doesn’t disappear immediately. The White House and Congress are both on record saying the CFIUS process needs to be rewritten, and Democrats have promised to push for more port-security funding as well.

“Is this going to come up in the 2006 election? Yeah, this is going to come up in the 2006 election,” said GOP strategist Michael McKenna.

He said the challenge will be whether Democrats can capitalize, and so far they don’t appear to be positioning themselves to do so.

“They appear to be talking. If it was me, I’d run through the wedge. Somebody gives you a little daylight, you run to it,” Mr. McKenna said.

More issues will likely follow this pattern in the run-up to the election, he said.

“This thing started off as strictly an economic decision by Treasury [Department] guys and it grew,” he said. “Ultimately, it became a trade issue and a security issue.”

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