WASHINGTON _ The White House, fighting public opinion and anxious Republican lawmakers, worked against the odds Wednesday to prevent Congress from blocking the transfer of some U.S. port terminals to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates
Republicans in the House of Representatives, publicly snubbing President Bush, inserted language to scuttle the deal into an emergency spending bill for hurricane relief and the war in Iraq. In the Senate, a bill to restrict lobbying practices and tighten ethics rules came to a standstill when Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to amend it with his proposal to undo the ports deal.
The public is driving this issue, not Bush or Congress. Polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans oppose the deal. Members of Congress report that calls to their offices against the deal are overwhelming.
"It's the biggest calling volume since the (Clinton) impeachment," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. "Those calls were mixed, for or against the impeachment. These are universally opposed."
Foley and others said the outcry began last month after radio talk-show host Michael Savage raged against the deal on his show.
"Michael often has a keen ear for what's going to be a hot-button issue. He certainly saw this and understood, quickly grasped this was an issue that was going to be incendiary," said Tom Taylor, the editor of Inside Radio magazine.
Lawmakers are trying to catch up to public opinion before they answer to voters in November. That's especially true in the House, whose members face re-election every two years. In the Senate, whose members serve six-year terms and thus are less susceptible to momentary passions, Republicans tried to buy the president some time while Democrats pushed for a quick vote against the deal.
The transaction would shift the management of several terminals in six major U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, through its acquisition of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a British company. The Bush administration's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved the deal in January. After the uproar, Dubai Ports World agreed to undergo a further 45-day investigation by the administration, which is under way.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush hadn't backed down from his vow last month to veto any legislation that halted the deal, but that the administration was open to discussions.
"We recognize that some members (of Congress) have concerns," McClellan said. "The lines of communication are open. There are a lot of conversations going on between the company and Congress and the administration, and those continue."
The House appears headed toward voting to kill the deal.
"I've heard from my constituents pretty strong views about a foreign-owned company managing U.S. ports," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "We want to make sure the security of our ports is in American hands."
Lewis' amendment, which the committee approved 62-2, would prevent the federal government from permitting "the acquisition of any leases, contracts, rights, or other obligations of P&O … by Dubai Ports World or any other legal entity affiliated with or controlled by Dubai Ports World."
The full House is expected to vote on the measure next week.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., complained that the United Arab Emirates participates in an economic embargo of Israel and once recognized the hard-line Taliban government in Afghanistan. "We need to go even further," he said. "We need to look at buy-American provisions."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who initially demanded the 45-day review, denounced the House Appropriations action and said Congress should await the results of the investigation.
"This is politics by polls," he said. "It's certainly not the best way to operate."
James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, said members of Congress were cynically capitalizing on anti-Arab sentiment and were falsely suggesting that the United Arab Emirates was allied with the Taliban.
"They recognized (the Taliban) because we asked them to," he said, referring to the U.S. government. "They provided us with invaluable intelligence on the ground about Afghanistan."
The issue may be a boon for Democrats. In a memo distributed Wednesday to Democratic senators, pollster Mark Mellman said Democrats could gain credibility on national security, an issue that Republicans have dominated.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)