Is the Dubai Ports Deal Doomed?

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Republican objections to the Dubai ports deal haven't stabilized in Congress this week, despite the promise of a 45-day delay and nonstop crisis management by the Bush Administration. If anything, they've increased.

While officials of Dubai Ports World tried to calm the waters in Congressional hearings and over the airwaves, opposition to the deal inside the House is actually growing with reports that the government is considering other strategic sales to the United Arab Emirates.

GOP lawmakers raised new questions about the ports deal, alleging that the UAE is too eaily infiltrated by terrorists and asking the Administration to explain whether U.S. terminal-operating companies could bid on UAE terminal work. But what really ticked off GOP lawmakers were the details of a much-ballyhooed 45-day cooling-off period, which turned out to be not a delay or review at all but just another way for Bush to say, "We've already made up our minds. We're just going to delay the paperwork for a month or so." Lawmakers regarded this gambit as another example of the Administration ignoring the will of Congress when consultation might have done the President some good.

Such repeated signs of contempt for Congress is a little hard for GOP members to swallow in the wake of the repeatedly amateurish White House handling of just about everything for the last year, ranging from the Harriet Miers nomination to the federal response to Hurricane Katrina to the dead-from-the-start Social Security reform initiative. Bush's performance has driven the entire party's poll numbers down, and with it many members' odds of re-election. Consequently, Republican confidence in the White House has crashed to an all-time low. "The White House has a huge challenge on its hands," Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told "They don't have the ability or credibility to carry this deal on their own."

The episode points to a larger weakness in the way the Bush White House is organized in an election year. Its congressional relations office has never been strong and is particularly weak now. Other than the Vice President, who left his seat in the House 17 years ago, the President lacks a single senior staffer who has ever been elected to Congress. At various times, all of Bush's predecessors found a reason to check this box: Bill Clinton had longtime California lawmaker Leon Panetta as chief of staff, Bush's father had former congressman Henson Moore as a deputy chief of staff, and Ronald Reagan had former Senator Howard Baker as his chief of staff as well. If Bush cared about working with Congress, one lawmaker said, he would have some people around who actually worked there before.

Given all the toxins in the water, about the only way to avoid a full congressional break with Bush on the ports deal is for the White House to offer Congress a chance to review and oversee the sale. But that is a step the Administration has continued to rule out. And so the President's party is poised for an unprecedented revolt.

One final but telling note: this week the Administration has put, even by its own standards, considerable resources into trying to salvage the ports deal in the House. Six or seven different p.r. operations are working the problem from around the government, with teams from Treasury, State, the White House, Homeland Security, the National Economic Council and a number of outside lobbying groups (who know a really big feed when they see one), all bombarding the Hill with phone calls and data, and all to very little apparent effect. "It's all hands on deck," said an outside lobbyist on the case. "The White House has done a good job in the press of making this look stabilized, but the members just aren't there."