Congressional Republicans Defy Bush on Port Deal

Madeleine Brand talks with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams about the busy week in politics. Hot topics: Republicans in Congress rebel against President Bush over the Dubai Ports World deal, and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay gets a convincing victory in the Texas GOP primary vote, despite the cloud of scandal surrounding him.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, saying it's immoral and unethical, a group of doctors calls for an end to force-feeding at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. But first, President Bush today says he's troubled by the political storm over the Dubai Ports deal. In the face of overwhelming Congressional opposition, Dubai Ports World says it will allow an American entity to take over its U.S. operations.

The President called the United Arab Emirates a committed ally in the war on terror, but said Congress was still very much opposed to it.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm concerned about a broader message this issue could send to our friends and allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East. In order to win the war on terror, we have got to strengthen our relationships and friendships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East.

BRAND: Joining me, as he does every Friday, is NPR's senior correspondent, Juan Williams, to talk about how the week looked in Washington. And Juan, we'll start with the Dubai Ports World story. It's still unclear just who will run the ports now. Any thoughts on who this American entity could possibly be?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Well, there's all sorts of talk, Madeleine, about Halliburton and other major companies, but so far, denials coming from that direction. You know, what's interesting too is there's questions about exactly how the deal would be checked, monitored to make sure that in fact Dubai Ports was not the controlling interest any longer. Who is going to make that decision?

You have the courts, the foreign investment panel, looking at Dubai Ports and having approved it. Are they going to use the same standard in approving a deal for a company that claims not to be based in the Arab world? You know, what have their standards been with regard to the Chinese, to any other foreign entity that's coming into the United States?

So it's not just who owns it. It's a question of who will acknowledge ownership and what's the process for giving them approval for the purchase?

BRAND: Well, I'm sure Congress will be keeping a keen eye on that. They were in open rebellion, Republicans in open rebellion against their leader, President Bush. What does this mean for him politically?

WILLIAMS: Boy, these are rough seas. He needs a port in the storm right now, Madeleine. The last few hours, what you've heard around Washington from the Republicans is this is done. It's over. We've taken the hit. Now it's time to move on. But from the Democratic perspective, the damage continues.

Clearly what you had was a, literally a pitchfork rebellion among the grassroots, especially on the Republican side, saying we don't want Arab ownership of U.S. ports, and the White House having been slow on the pickup, slow to respond, then finds that the, especially the House of Representatives, a literal stampede away from the President, forcing him into more and more of a lame duck status, one who can't even control his own troops, Madeleine.

BRAND: Another poll out this week shows the President's approval rating another all-time low for him, in the upper-30s. He's always done well though on national security questions. How badly does the uproar over the ports hurt him in that area?

WILLIAMS: Well, you're exactly on target with that because what you hear from political insiders is that the issue, the key issue, in terms of leverage and advantage for Republicans, has always been that the public perceives the Republicans at better handling the war on terror. Now, over the last few weeks, with the Dubai Port deal in the headlines, that advantage has shrunk.

Previously it was as high as 15, 20 points, most recently about 13 points at the start of the year. Now it's down to five percentage points in terms of asking voters who would you prefer to take the lead in defending America against terrorism. And only five percentage points now between Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats holding the lead on issues like the economy, education, healthcare.

That's an amazing shrinkage, and one that has Republicans in Congress and in the Senate absolutely apoplectic at the prospects of what will happen in November, with the mid-term elections.

BRAND: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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