Ports Showdown Averted, White House Relieved
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
While it's handing over a prison the U.S. will not be handing some of its seaport operations to a Persian Gulf firm. Dubai Ports World says it is backing out of a plan to take over the operations at some American ports. Though the details are not clear, the firm says, an American company will take over instead. That announcement comes as President Bush neared a confrontation with his own party.
NPR's David Greene reports.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
President Bush awoke yesterday in one political mess. He had said that if legislation landed on his desk blocking Dubai Ports World from taking over some U.S. port operations, he'd veto it. Now Congressional Republicans were on the verge of testing him. Mr. Bush sat down in the morning with a group of Republican leaders and when he brought up the ports deal, they told him the truth, that Congress was likely to kill it. This lead to questions for White House Spokesman Scott McClellan about whether the president has lost control of his party.
Mr. SCOTT McLELLAN (White House Spokesman): You know, I think that there's a tendency in this town to try to selectively pick snapshots, when the broader reality is that we have a record of results and that we're getting things done for the American people.
GREENE: The reality is also that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the ports deal and that the debate has given Democrats the chance to turn Mr. Bush's signature political issue, national security, against him. The White House appeared yesterday to be looking for an escape strategy. That's when Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, came to the Senate floor. He said he had a press release from Dubai Ports World and that he wanted to read it.
Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): Because of the strong relationship between the United Arab Emirates and the United States, and to preserve that relationship, DP World has decided to transfer fully the U.S. operation of P&O Ports North America to a United States entity.
GREENE: Perhaps sensing a political window closing, Democrats quickly gathered reporters. There is no assurance, they pointed out, that Dubai Ports World will be completely removed from the port operations. At the same time, Democrats were eager to paint this as a defeat for the President.
New York Senator Charles Schumer suggested the Bush Administration had mishandled national security.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): We cannot let our guard down four years after 9/11. And it was obvious that this deal, which was done in a cursory, casual and secret way, should never have gone forward to begin with. We now smell the scent of victory.
GREENE: The White House, meanwhile, did the equivalent of letting out a giant sigh of relief. Aides said the announcement seemed to resolve the matter and that it was time to start talking about other subjects. As for Mr. Bush, he didn't mention port security once in public yesterday. Not when he spoke in Washington about religious groups trying to get federal funding.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's hard to be a faith-based program if you can't practice your faith no matter what your faith may be.
GREENE: Not at a White House ceremony to re-authorize the Patriot Act.
President BUSH: It has helped us detect terror cells, disrupt terrorist plots and save American lives.
GREENE: And not when he flew to Georgia for a Republican fundraiser where he brought up 9/11.
President BUSH: See, after that day I vowed that I would do everything in my power to protect the United States of America from further attack.
(Soundbite of applause)
GREENE: But now the question is whether the flack over court security has caused Americans to question that commitment.
David Greene, NPR News, the White House.
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