WASHINGTON – Lobbying groups with a big stake in international business are watching — some eagerly, others anxiously — to see whether public outrage over a foreign-owned company's U.S. ports deal extends to trade or other issues before Congress.
Unions hope it is a sign of a broader groundswell against the shifting of American jobs to other countries, and that Congress will respond.
"I think because of the port deal, Americans are waking up to the fact that globalization without rules may be making America weaker," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director.
"We won't have to change our arguments, but I think the environment has completely changed," Samuel added.
Business lobbyists are busy trying to make sure the favorable momentum they've had with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House on trade and foreign investment issues doesn't change. They acknowledge that may not be easy right now, particularly with a stirred-up public in an election year.
"I don't think this boils down to a 30-second spiel with anybody," said Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for government affairs.
Josten offered a summary of the arguments he is presenting as he lobbies on Capitol Hill and in media interviews: "Here's the bottom line, here's what the American people need to understand," he said. "We're 5 percent of the world's population, in the U.S. Our companies need to sell to the other 95 percent."
The lobbying effort by the Chamber and other business groups comes as President Bush and administration officials make their own pro-international business public-relations push. Bush and Treasury Secretary John Snow have both advanced arguments similar to Josten's in speeches in recent days.
Widespread public anger over the Bush administration's approval of a deal to let a Dubai-owned company take over significant operations at six major U.S. ports caught many in Washington by surprise. Congress signaled it would act to block it, and the company, DP World, said late last week it would give up its U.S. operations.
The outcry followed protests last year in Congress and the public over an attempt by China's CNOOC Ltd. to buy Unocal, the second-largest U.S. oil company.
The combination of the two events is giving momentum to lawmakers who want tougher rules for foreign investment in the United States. The proposals include congressional review of foreign investment and forcing overseas companies to divest their financial stakes in anything deemed to be part of America's national security infrastructure.
Tita Freeman, spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable, said her group's lobbying against the legislation has focused on Congress so far, but broad public outreach may become part of the strategy.
"We'll see if over time, when members go home for recess, if the issue continues to fester," Freeman said.
The National Retail Federation plans to push for oversight hearings in Congress on port security, in part to slow things down.
"It's very challenging. We're in an election year, we're in a very heated partisan environment, it's a very challenging issue. And when you're talking about national security, sometimes what makes sense takes a back seat to those concerns," said Erik Autor, the federation's international trade counsel and a lobbyist.
But the fact that it's a campaign year may also be an advantage for groups like the federation.
"As you get closer to the election, the likelihood that Congress is going to be able to pass legislation, particularly on what might be viewed as partisan or difficult issues, diminishes," Autor said.
On the other side, Kevin Kearns, president of the United States Business & Industry Council — which represents family owned U.S. businesses that want tougher U.S. trade policies to protect American companies — said his group lacks the budget to try to sway public opinion, but doesn't need to, this time.
Instead, the question is what Congress will do next, Kearns said.
"Congress has experienced where the public mood is, so what are they going to do about it?" he asked. "They go to the town-hall meetings, they've been lobbied directly by the public, so let's see if they do something."