Republicans and Democrats Unite to Exploit Port Deal Fears

The overwhelming vote by the House of Representatives to block the Dubai ports deal has been dubbed a “Rebellion in the G.O.P. on Security, a Signature Issue” by Carl Hulse, the NYT’s lead reporter on the issue.

After more than five years of allowing President Bush relatively free rein to set their course, Republicans in Congress are suddenly, if selectively, in rebellion, a mutiny all the more surprising since it centers on the party’s signature issue of national security. In a rebuke to the White House, House Republicans are moving aggressively to put the brakes on the takeover by a Dubai company of some port terminal operations in several large American cities, an effort that moved forward on Wednesday with broad bipartisan support. At the same time, Republicans in the Senate are wrestling with how hard to press the White House for more authority over Mr. Bush’s eavesdropping program, seeking a middle ground between Democratic calls for an investigation of the program and White House demands to keep hands off.

In the case of the port deal, the political considerations are clearly paramount for Republicans and are compelling. Public opinion appears to be strongly against allowing an Arab company to manage some port terminals in the United States, Democrats are hammering Republicans on the issue, and the White House has been unable to provide much political cover to its allies on Capitol Hill. When it comes to the debate over how and whether to allow eavesdropping without warrants on terror suspects, the politics are more muddled. The White House has had considerable success defining that issue on its terms, as anti-terrorist surveillance, and there has been no broad public outcry against it. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been left grappling with how to balance their concerns about granting the president wide wartime powers against the perception that they might weaken a program that the administration says protects Americans from attack.

Still, even a limited move to place a check on the eavesdropping program, like the one contained in a deal worked out by the White House with Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, contributes to a sense that Mr. Bush’s own party is edging away from him — or, in the case of the port deal, abandoning him and his dismal poll numbers with the greatest possible haste. A perception that conditions in Iraq show little improvement is not helping the relationship.


Whether theatrics or something more fundamental, some Republicans say that the port fight and scrutiny of the surveillance program show a new willingness to confront the White House and that it is a fitting moment for Congress to declare its independence. “If there was ever a good time for Congress to figure out oversight, it would be in the sixth year of a presidency,” said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 House Republican, well aware that the party in power typically loses seats at the midpoint of a president’s second term.

That instinct for political survival is helping to stiffen the Congressional spine. Republicans have held a significant political advantage over Democrats on the issue of national security, offsetting Democratic strength on social policy. Given the uproar at home over the port deal and nervousness about the implications of eavesdropping without warrants, Republicans are worried about losing their edge. Democrats say they should be.

It’s not surprising that Members up for re-election will side with public opinion, even reactionary opinion, over a lame duck president. They’ll even resort to demagoguery:

“This is a national security issue,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said of the port operations issue, adding that the legislation would “keep America’s ports in American hands.”

It’s hard to “keep” something in America’s hands that wasn’t there to begin with. Nor is “security” being contracted out in any event. Surely, Lewis knows that. But the public seems not to and politicians have been exploiting the ignorance of their electorate since the Greek Republic.

“The House is acting a little rashly,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., a critic of the DP World deal that has roiled Capitol Hill over the past few weeks. “This is politics by polls, I guess, and it’s certainly not the best way to operate.”

No but it’s the usual way to operate.

And it’s not just the Republicans, either.

“This is a very big political problem,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader, said Tuesday. “It is pretty clear to me,” Mr. Boehner said, “that the House is going to speak on this sooner rather than later.”

Several Republicans also said they saw little alternative but to act or face the prospect of Democrats’ taking the initiative, potentially cutting into a Republican political advantage on national security issues.

Democrats said they were surprised at how quickly Republicans were moving to separate themselves from Mr. Bush. “What this shows is that the Republican leadership realized this cannot be swept under the rug and that time, if anything, will make things worse,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, a strong critic of the port proposal. “The only question is, ‘Is the Republican leadership acting with the quiet acquiescence of the White House or over their objections?’ I think it is the former.”

The politics of hysteria makes strange bedfellows. Yesterday, Schumer went on Michael Savage’s radio program for help fanning the flames.

Does this make Bush a lame duck? Steven Taylor thinks “it may be time to start speaking of hobbled water fowl.” Perhaps so. There’s no doubt that the president’s sway is less than it was a few months ago. Could it resurge, if his poll numbers go up? Absolutely.

The irony, though, is that Republicans and Democrats are uniting here to make political hay out of what was probably the right decision on part of the president, all in the name of port security. Yet, shamefully, neither the White House nor the Congress is actually doing anything about real security issues at our ports.

But that’s politics.

Update: Ed Morrissey agrees, as his pithy post title aply demonstrates: “A Spoonful Of Panic Helps The Majority Go Down.”

This issue has the PowerLine gang split, with John Hinderaker lambasting this decision as “foolish” and Scott Johnson thinking it politically necessary.

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, Congress, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    There�s no doubt that the president�s sway is less than it was a few months ago.

    Not that it was as great as we might have liked to believe even then. His veto threat on this issue, as best I can tell, elicited a range of reactions from polite snickers to outright guffaws — precisely because of all the pure garbage he’s failed to veto before this.

  2. Bithead says:

    FWIW, I disagree with the use of the word “Revolt”, which is a positive action and usually an action of courage.

    This vote by the Congress is giving in to fear, and has nothing to do with courage. Therefore, to my thinking, “revolt” does not apply.

  3. McGehee says:

    “Revolting,” on the other hand…?

  4. floyd says:

    james; once again you are the sane voice of clarity, thank you!