The Ports Deal: A Looming Test of Wills

The looming standoff over the sale of some U.S. port operations to a company owned by Dubai is only the latest confrontation between President Bush and Congress. But it may be the one that changes their relationship.

The administration has, at a minimum, failed to explain its faith in Dubai Ports World, which is owned by the government of the Arab emirate of Dubai. That has left Americans with doubts — if not a sense of alarm — about the deal. Even those who accept the administration's assurances are dismayed at the way the matter was handled (or the way it erupted into public consciousness).

As a result, the Congress returns from its weeklong recess determined to legislate on the matter. There will be calls for postponement and more thorough investigation. A bill to block the deal outright is not out of the question.

Not out of the question unless, of course, you talk to the White House, where they are willing to brook "a slight delay" in effectuating the deal but no more. You can stress the word slight or the word delay, either way it's clear the White House still considers this a done deal.

Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, closed the week by saying there would be time to "explain and provide more information" to Congress and the public. "That's a good thing," Hadley said. But as for reconsideration, well: "There is nothing to reopen.”

Any wonder that Curt Weldon, a restive Republican House member from Pennsylvania, used the word "arrogance" when talking about the White House attitude toward Congress?

Over the last five years, the White House has grappled with Congress over taxes, spending, prescription drugs for seniors, oil drilling in Alaska, Hurricane Katrina and any number of issues arising from the war in Iraq. But the outcome of these struggles has usually been the same: Congress gives in and the president gets his way.

For five years, Bush & Company has regarded Congress with respect, but the kind of respect afforded a junior partner — a colleague who carries out instructions. Congress gets to posture and tinker, and it may adjust some of the priority order. But in the end, the president's crew calls the shots and Congress must be content to operate on the margins.

For the most part, Congress has accepted this arrangement. Republican majorities have prevailed in both chambers (setting aside 18 months of Democratic majority in the Senate in 2001-2002), and the GOP leaders have generally embraced the president's agenda and political well-being as their own.

That's why Mr. Bush has gone longer without using his veto power than any president since John Quincy Adams. It's also why the Congress has been growing a grudge much larger than the ordinary congressional stepchild variety. This is a five-year-old sore rubbed raw by subservient status, and it was showing even last fall among Republicans as well as Democrats.

Rebellion flared on the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, forcing her to withdraw. It flared again on the issue of prisoner and detainee abuse in the war on terror, and on certain provisions of the Patriot Act. And it has burned brightly for six months over the handling of Katrina relief.

But all those moments were a warm-up for what's happened in recent days. The explosion of opposition to the port deal is ironic because it assaults the absolute center of the Bush administration's presumed strength — its obsession with national security. It is doubly ironic because it feeds on the fear of another Sept. 11, the same fear that has fueled so much of this White House's policy and politics. All at once, they are feeling the heat from the fires they themselves have been stoking.

Yet for all the current emotion over this issue, it is not hard to imagine a resolution in the weeks ahead. Congress could listen to the many voices — both inside and outside the government — offering reassurances about Dubai Ports World and port security. Congress might be mollified and step aside.

Conversely, the administration could comply with the plainest reading of the relevant law, which seems to mandate a 45-day investigation whenever a foreign government buys something of substantial value in the U.S. (The administration has argued the probe is needed only if security concerns remain unresolved after a preliminary review.) By ceding to Congress on this point, the administration might well win out in the longer run.

But to accomplish either of these outcomes — or any rational alternative — will require someone to bend the knee. Either Congress will go along with the White House one more time, or the president's team will have to acknowledge the status and powers of Congress in a way not seen to date.

Experience suggests that, in the end, for good reasons or bad, Congress will cave. But recent history has not seen a case quite like this one. And if Congress resists the president and prevails, it may not be willing to play junior partner again.

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