Defying a veto threat from President Bush, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are vowing to block a U.S. government plan to turn over management of six key seaports to a company based in the United Arab Emirates.
The president's first comments came during an impromptu briefing for reporters on Air Force One, when he challenged lawmakers to explain why U.A.E.-based Dubai Ports World is being held to a different standard than a British-based company it will
replace in managing six U.S. ports.
In comments later at the White House, the president expanded, saying the U.A.E. company has been thoroughly vetted.
He says stopping the deal would send the wrong message to friends and allies.
"The company is from a country that has been cooperative in the war on terror, been an ally in the war on terror. The company operates ports in different countries around the world, ports from which cargo has been sent to the United States on a regular basis. I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world that it is OK for a company from one country to manage the port, but not from a country that plays by the rules and has got a good track record, from another part of the world, cannot manage the port."
U.A.E-based Dubai Ports World would manage ports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Miami, taking over from a British-based company, P and O Steam Navigation.
That company was acquired by Dubai Ports World for 6.8 billion dollars, a deal which still faces final approval later this month by a British court.
The U.A.E. government calls concerns unfounded, pointing to long-standing operational ties between it and U.S. authorities.
President Bush is in direct conflict with powerful Republican leaders in Congress, who are vowing to join opposition Democrats in stopping the deal.
Senate Democrat Charles Schumer said Tuesday the U.A.E. company comes out of a country that, in his words, has had a strong al-Qaida presence, justifying a more thorough investigation.
Schumer and the Republican Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Congressman Peter King, plan to introduce legislation as early as next Monday to block the deal.
"It has to do with a country which really has had unusually close ties to terrorism, and it is a risk we just can't take."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist plans similar legislation.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert wants an immediate moratorium, until Congress has a chance to assess what he calls the risks posed to U.S. port security.
U.S. government officials joined the White House Tuesday in pointing out that the management deal was first made public last November.
They say extensive precautions were taken to scrutinize the record of state-owned Dubai Ports World, to ensure there will be no impact on U.S. port security.
Stewart Baker is with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"There are more safeguards in this transaction than in any past port transaction, so that we have been able on the basis of our review of their activity to get them to commit to continue on a mandatory basis best practices programs that they joined on a voluntary basis."
President Bush, during his two terms in the White House, has yet to veto any piece of legislation emerging from Congress.
Congress can override a presidential veto of any legislation blocking the port management takeover, but this would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.