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Lawmaker tries to block ports deal

Peter Kaplan and Rick Cowan / Reuters | March 8 2006

Defying President George W. Bush, Republicans in the House of Representatives on Tuesday moved to block plans by a state-owned Arab company to manage six U.S. ports by attaching an amendment to must-pass spending legislation for the Iraq war and hurricane relief.

House Republican leaders backed a plan by Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis to push an amendment aimed at stopping the ports deal the administration had approved, said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

"We do not believe the U.S. should allow a state-owned company to run American ports," Bonjean said.

Bush has threatened to veto legislation that attempts to block the $6.85 billion deal under which Dubai Ports World took over the global assets of Britain-based P&O which would give the state-owned Arab company control over managing some facilities at six major U.S. ports.

News of the deal the administration had quietly approved unleashed a political firestorm, with opponents charging it posed a potential security threat.

The administration agreed to an additional 45-day review of the deal, but Bush has said security concerns were unwarranted. He said security at the ports would remain in U.S. control, and that Dubai, a member of the United Arab Emirates, has been a strong ally in his war against terrorism.

Lewis, a California Republican, said he was working with other lawmakers on the port amendment. It would be attached to an emergency spending package for Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Gulf Coast hurricane relief that lawmakers will begin drafting on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said it was still unclear how the amendment would work, and whether it would apply more broadly to other state-owned companies operating U.S. ports.

Spending bills often become targets for unrelated amendments that cut off funds for projects that are undesirable in the eyes of some lawmakers.

"I have heard from many of my constituents who have strong concerns about the possibility of foreign-owned companies managing U.S. ports. I have also heard from many of the members of my committee who have similar concerns," Lewis said.

'BIG POLITICAL PROBLEM'

House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called the ports deal "a very big political problem. I have seen it in my district. I have seen it every place I have been."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, another California Republican, also announced he was introducing a bill that similarly would forbid foreign companies from owning, operating or managing the U.S. ports like those involved in the Dubai Ports World deal.

Hunter said his bill was designed to ensure that all key "national defense critical infrastructure" would be controlled by Americans.

Hunter said it would be up to the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to decide what facilities fall under that category.

Those that did would have to be majority U.S.-owned. The chief executive, chairman and a majority of directors would have to be U.S. citizens. In addition, the U.S. Defense Secretary would have to approve two or more independent directors on the board, as well as the members of a government security committee.

Under the bill proposed by Hunter, foreign companies that currently own any critical facilities would have to overhaul their management immediately. They would have five years to sell a majority ownership stake to Americans.

The bill also would tighten the government's review of transactions "that may have national security implications" and require inspection of all cargo coming into the United States, Hunter said.

"I think we need to speak out," Hunter told reporters at a news conference. "This is at the heart of what we are facing in terms of a security challenge in the next century."

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