Inside the Politics of the Dubai Ports Controversy

The apparent decision by Dubai Ports World to transfer ownership of its rights to U.S. port operations culminated a three-week long firestorm over the deal that took the White House by surprise. When the country learned of the deal, mostly through news reports and talk shows, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, is with us now to talk more about the politics of the Dubai ports matter. Ron, a lot happened today and in a short window of time. What's the bottom line in all of this?

RON ELVING reporting:

It feels like it's over. It's not clear when the company made its decision, whether it was today or earlier, but we do know that the president was told this morning, in no uncertain terms, by the top five Republican leaders in Congress, House and Senate, that Congress was resolved against the deal, and that any veto, the president's ultimate weapon, the presidential veto, would be overridden and easily.

NORRIS: So Congress won't pass a bill barring the deal.

ELVING: It's not going to be necessary as it appears now. Oh, they're keeping their options open. They're still talking about the possibility of doing it. But assuming that the Dubai decision stands up, it's real and they are going away, pulling back from this deal, then a bill would be moot.

NORRIS: Now, the White House had been talking about a veto in the strongest possible language even this morning.

ELVING: Yes, and it had been perhaps the highest profile veto threat we have had from a president who, in fact, has not issued any vetoes but frequently uses the threat as part of his leverage with Congress. So it would have been tough for him not to follow through. But when you look at the House Appropriations Committee vote yesterday, this is a committee that's dominated by Republicans. It's overwhelmingly Republican. And it was 62-2, as Brian Naylor just told us, and that vote attached this issue to the emergency spending bill for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and victims of Katrina. So you talk about a tough veto situation, it would have been an excruciating situation for the president. So this withdrawal by the Dubai company is both a blow to the White House and, in a sense, it's a boon, because it allows them to cut their losses on this issue.

NORRIS: But it seems that the White House is still in a tough position, because when the history is written on this, in the showdown, Congress gets to say, well, we had our way.

ELVING: Absolutely. They stood up in defiance to the president's veto threat, and they prevailed in a big way, and they did it with the whole world watching.

NORRIS: Why was this deal so unpopular?

ELVING: Congress was responding here to the people they're supposed to respond to, their constituents. The polls were 65, 70 percent negative on the deal. And people were not just against it, they were actively against it. They were sending emails and mountains of mail and phone calls to Capitol Hill, and these offices were swamped with this in a way that they very rarely see.

NORRIS: So who were the constituents necessarily responding to if they were sending mountains of mail and making all of these phone calls? Who was sort of feeding that information chain?

ELVING: Most of it was coming from opponents of the deal, and largely from the media. In the first days after the deal became generally known, three weeks ago, the administration scarcely mounted a defense, and that's when the impression really stuck. So you have to ask, how did, did people know, for example, that this deal was 90 percent overseas, only 10 percent in the U.S.? Probably not. Did they know how small the footprint of the Dubai firm would actually be at these six ports, 24 terminals total in the United States, that they wouldn't actually own any ports or take over any ports? Probably people did not know that.

NORRIS: Now, in the end, the opposition to this bill was bipartisan. It came from both sides. But it began among Democrats. What do those folks do now, the Democrats?

ELVING: Well, the Democrats are going to continue to hope that they can use this particular issue to nationalize the election in November, or at least to turn around the energy with respect to the homeland security issue. Today on Capitol Hill they had a number of events where they tried to broaden the assault, to go from this particular ports deal to talking about lots of other ways in which they feel they can provide better homeland security than the Republicans. And to the extent that they were starting to get some traction on this, and polls were showing that the president was not ahead on protecting the country from terrorists in his usual way over Democrats, to that extent they were really throwing a scare into Republicans, who have to defend their control of the House and the Senate this fall.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving.

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