Frist Joins Critics Opposing Port Deal as Bush Presses Forward

ByZ. BYRON WOLF

Feb. 21, 2006 — -- A very powerful and very Republican voice has joined those questioning the White House's acceptance of a plan by the Arab company Dubai Ports World to take over the operations at major East Coast shipping ports, including those in New York and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, President Bush said today that he would veto any congressional efforts to stop the deal from going forward.

"After careful review by our government, I believe the transaction ought to go forward," Bush told reporters who had traveled with him on Air Force One to Washington. "I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company. I am trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, 'We'll treat you fairly.'"

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist issued a statement earlier saying that the deal raised "serious questions regarding the safety and security of our homeland." He called for the deal, which is set to be finalized March 2, to be delayed and for a fuller and more transparent review of the deal to take place.

Following that statement was a thinly veiled threat to the White House: "If the administration cannot delay the process, I plan on introducing legislation to ensure that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review."

It would not be the first bill put forward to stop the deal -- already three others have been announced. But Frist carries enormous clout among Republicans, and, as majority leader, he controls what comes to the Senate floor and when.

Frist, who is a likely contender among the large field of Republicans vying to replace Bush in 2008, rarely disagrees with the White House in public. He was meeting with immigration officials in Southern California today ahead of a push by Congress to amend immigration laws in the coming months.

Already, lawmakers as disparate as Georgia Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have raised serious concerns about the deal. The deal would allow Dubai Ports World, which is owned by a royal family in the United Arab Emirates, to buy the British Company P&O Ports. Dubai Ports World operates ports in 18 countries.

But Rep. Peter King, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, and fellow New Yorker, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, announced they were co-sponsoring a bill that would be rushed through Congress to block the sale of the P&O Ports pending a more complete investigation. Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey had already offered a similar bill to block the sale.

Even though Dubai Ports World would not in any scenario be charged with port security, Democrats are using the likely sale to raise questions about the steps taken by the Bush administration since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

A third emergency bill -- offered by another presidential hopeful, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. -- would not only halt the sale of port operations to Dubai Ports World, but also alter how the government investigates and clears such deals.

Bayh points out that a congressional investigation requested in 2003 and completed in 2005 found that the government entity that cleared such sales "uses such a narrow definition of national security that it approves too many questionable takeovers without sufficient review."

That government entity is an arm of the Department of Treasury -- the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Bayh noted that since its inception in 1998, the committee had rejected the sale of only one U.S. company. He said the committee had failed in its oversight before, as in 1995, when it failed to prevent a U.S. company from selling the high-tech magnets used to guide smart bombs to China.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declined last week to discuss with Congress the process by which the committee clears sales, but told members that the Department of Homeland Security was also involved in the process. He again declined to discuss the process in an interview on Sunday with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

From the government's perspective, the United Arab Emirates is a relatively friendly Arab country, and the ports are already operated with foreign investments, as P&O Ports is British-owned.

But in the post-9/11 mindset, the fact that Dubai Ports World is based in the same country where two of the 9/11 hijackers originated has struck a chord with lawmakers from both parties.

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