WASHINGTON – Despite a presidential veto threat, a House committee on Wednesday voted to block a controversial ports deal that has President Bush in the hotseat.
The House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment to a $92 billion emergency supplemental funding measure for hurricane recovery and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The committee vote was 62-2.
"The amendment is straight-forward and is a rifle shot crack to block the Dubai Ports World deal only. This is a national issue. This is a national security bill. We want to make sure that the security of our ports is in America's hands," said committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
House Republicans led the charge to pass legislation that would block an administration-approved plan to hand over some terminal operations at six U.S. ports to a UAE-owned company, Dubai Ports World. A British company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., currently operates the terminals in question.
House Republicans feared that if they did not move to block the deal now, Democrats would force their own vote that would be successful. That would only invite criticism of the GOP's national security record, which historically has been the party's strength.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats raced to get a vote on the ports deal in the GOP-led Senate late Wednesday.
"We believe an overwhelming majority will vote to end the deal," said Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, who introduced an amendment to lobby reform legislation that would also block the deal.
Schumer's efforts brought Senate business to a halt, since GOP leaders said they weren't notified of the move. Democratic leaders then basically charged Republicans with purposefully quashing the amendment.
"It infuriates the majority that Senator Schumer offered this amendment," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told reporters late Wednesday afternoon. "This is typical spin by Republicans in Washington … rather than talk about substantive issues, they get things moved ... to procedure. We want to vote on the Dubai ports scandal … is that asking too much? ... I want to terminate the deal."
Amid the political infighting over who would introduce this legislation first, Bush signaled that he still wants the deal to go through.
"The president's position is unchanged," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One while traveling with the president to New Orleans. "We're continuing to work closely with Congress. We recognize that some members have concerns. The lines of communication are open. ... There are a lot of conversations going on between the company and Congress and the administration."
House Majority Leader John Boehner told FOX News on Wednesday that the White House has fumbled its handling of the ports deal and that he has "deep concerns" about the ports deal. While he said there are ways to defend the deal, the White House isn't doing it.
"You can talk about it until you are blue in the face, and you're not going to convince anybody," Boehner said.
Asked if House Republicans were ticked off with Bush, Boehner said: "A lot of my colleagues are. I wish it wasn't the case, but it is." Boehner said those sentiments are not shared by House GOP leaders, however, adding, "that would go a bit too far."
Dems Trying to Act 'Sooner Rather Than Later'
Because of this House GOP move, Democrats in the Senate scrambled to act, despite former promises not to try to attach ports bills to the lobby bill.
Schumer tried to offer an amendment to lobby-reform legislation that said no company wholly owned or controlled by any foreign government that recognized the Taliban's authority in Afghanistan from 1996-2001 may own, lease, operate or manage U.S. properties or facilities.
But Senate action on the lobby reform bill ground to a halt when Schumer took the floor with his amendment.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sent a senior aide to tell the press that Schumer "misled" the Senate and by offering such an unrelated amendment to the lobby reform bill, had "violated the customs of the Senate," calling this "inappropriate and wrong."
The aide said Frist would strike back by filing cloture to shut down a filibuster. That means if Frist gets 60 votes, he can shut down all irrelevant amendments to the lobby reform bill, and Schumer's amendment dies.
"There's a CFIUS process in place, a 45-day review. The president then has 15 days to act. Then Congress has a right to act after that," the Frist aide said.
CFIUS is the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which conducted the original security review of the deal and which has come under fire from congressional lawmakers for what they say was a less-than-thorough review of the potential security implications of having a foreign government-owned company run some U.S. port operations.
"They'll come up with whatever excuse it takes not to have such an amendment," Schumer told reporters, adding that he will continue to offer his amendment until such a vote is had.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley told FOX News that the Schumer language was used to get around a constitutional prohibition against Congress enacting or passing bills that singles out particular person or company for punishment without the benefit of a trial.
When asked why the legislation was being introduced now, Manley said, "Reid had consistently said that he would not offer ports-related amendments to the lobby legislation on the floor," however, "the reality, given what happened last night [House GOP moving to block the deal], we needed to do something sooner rather than later."
Schumer earlier left a Democratic Steering Committee meeting and said, "We feel the time has come to do something about Dubai Ports World."
One member attending the meeting said that Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Schumer, and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota all stood up and basically said the Democrats are going to miss the boat if they don't strike now.
King and Schumer said they would not support DP World having any role in operations at the ports, and Schumer said that the Senate was not going to support that idea, either.
King said he would consider a deal that would include DP World, but only if an American company were in charge of operating the ports, and ensuring the Dubai company wasn't allowed access to information from the contract with the U.S. company.
But "the political reality is, if you have three weeks to explain it, and you can't explain it ... it's time to end it," said King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
But one Senate aide told FOX News that the Senate might be more willing to support the administration's position than the House has. A Frist aide said the majority leader has urged Treasury Secretary John Snow to keep the Senate abreast of a government panel's 45-day review of the deal.
Frist told Snow that he must "directly work with the members of the Senate to make crystal clear what's going on with CFIUS and the Dubai Ports World deal investigation and do so now," the aide said.
Until now, GOP leaders have avoided sending the president any measures he wouldn't sign. And although he's issued threats, Bush has yet to veto any legislation in more than five years in office.
Efforts by the Bush administration to quell the controversy — including repeated arguments that port security would not be outsourced — have failed. The White House even reluctantly agreed to conduct a broader investigation into potential security risks of DP World's plans, but that has not been enough.
Most Americans oppose allowing a Dubai company to run some U.S. ports, even as a majority understands the U.S. would continue to control port security, according to a new FOX News poll. One in four sees the United Arab Emirates as a strong ally, but most either disagree or are unsure. The poll found that 69 percent of Americans oppose the deal — four times as many as support the deal (17 percent).
FOX News' Major Garrett, Molly Hooper, Liza Porteus and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this story.