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House Republicans Move to Halt Dubai Ports Deal

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. We're going to begin this hour on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are going against President Bush and moving to stop the Dubai ports deal. Late today, a House panel passed legislation that would prevent Dubai Ports World from taking over some operations at six U.S. ports. Members of the House Appropriations Committee attached an amendment to a must-pass bill that funds military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That amendment has language blocking the ports deal. In a few minutes, Peter Overby will tell us about how Congress got involved in this matter in the first place.

NORRIS: But for the latest on today's legislative moves, we're joined by NPR's Brian Naylor from the Capitol. Brian, bring us up to date.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Michele, the Appropriations Committee had this big 91 billion dollar must-pass bill, as you said. It was really the first train to leave the station, as it were. So committee chairman, Republican Jerry Lewis of California, inserted a provision saying that "acquisition of any leases, contracts, rights or other obligations of P&O Ports by Dubai Ports World is hereby prohibited and shall have no effect." And after some debate, it was approved 62 to 2.

NORRIS: Brian, what's the rush here? The administration is undertaking a 45 day review, why not wait for that?

NAYLOR: Because, Michele, the political pressures are just enormous. Members of Congress say their offices have been inundated with phone calls from constituents opposed to this deal. Polls have shown it's very unpopular with most Americans. And as Chairman Lewis put it this afternoon, even if we don't get it, our constituents do.

NORRIS: So despite that political pressure and all those polls, the White House remains in favor of this?

NAYLOR: Right. Just today, spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated the president wants to see the deal go through. In the past, Mr. Bush has threatened to veto legislation blocking the ports deal. McClellan sounded a little bit more conciliatory today. He says the administration recognizes that some members have concerns and that there are, as he put it, a lot of conversations going on between the company and Congress and the administration.

NORRIS: This kind of intra-part warfare is somewhat unusual. Why are Republicans on this collision course with the president?

NAYLOR: And collision course, it is. The simple answer, I think, is politics. Members of Congress are up for reelection this year and in the words of House Republican Leader John Boehner, this is a big political problem. Partly, that's because Democrats have been out front on the issue and Republicans are worried that national security in general has been an issue that they've owned, and here they are, Democrats are taking it away from them. And what's more, I think the president's approval rating is down and this is a way for some Republicans to maybe put a little distance between themselves and Mr. Bush.

NORRIS: Now, we've been talking about the House, what about the Senate?

NAYLOR: Well, it's hard to figure out what's going on with the Senate. It was tied up much of the day after Democrat Charles Schumer of New York introduced an amendment to an unrelated lobby reform bill to block the ports deal. Republican leaders were clearly caught off guard and not happy about it, so things kind of shut down. Republicans in the Senate are concerned about the deal, but many of them are saying let's not rush into anything. Let's wait for the 45 day review process to be complete before acting. But I think the action by the House this afternoon and the pressure by the Democrats, Republican leaders might not be able to hold the tide back much longer.

NORRIS: Brian, before we let you go, tell us quickly what happens next.

NAYLOR: Well, the appropriations committee act, it'll, it's like that the full House will take up the appropriations bill next week. But it may be until next month before the Senate takes up the appropriations bill. We'll just have to wait and see.

NORRIS: Thank you, Brian.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Brian Naylor at the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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