GWEN IFILL: It didn't take long for a company few lawmakers had ever heard of just a few weeks ago to become the center of heated debate today.
REP. JERRY LEWIS (R-CA), CHAIR, APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE: This is a national security issue; this is a national security bill. We want to make sure that the security of our ports is in America's hands.
GWEN IFILL: An agreement to allow Dubai Ports World, a government-owned company based in the United Arab Emirates, to manage six U.S. ports has driven a political wedge into the heart of the Republican Party.
REP. CURT WELDON (R), PENNSYLVANIA: What absolutely offends me the most is this White House had to know that there would be significant concerns raised by the American people and the Congress.
GWEN IFILL: President Bush has promised to veto any effort to derail the deal, which he says is important and necessary.
GEORGE W. BUSH: If there was any doubt in my mind or people in my administration's mind that our ports would be less secure and the American people endangered, this deal wouldn't go forward.
GWEN IFILL: And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist proposed a 45-day cooling-off period to review the Dubai deal.
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: The pause for 45 days is important. It is our responsibility to be able to answer the questions appropriately, and we need to get the information to do that.
GWEN IFILL: The president agreed to the review, as did Edward Bilkey, the chief operating officer of Dubai Ports World.
EDWARD BILKEY, DUBAI PORTS WORLD CEO: We stated that we would abide by the outcome of that review.
GWEN IFILL: But in the House of Representatives, at least, that has not been enough.
REP. MARCY KAPTUR (D), OHIO: I can't tell you an issue that my constituents have asked me about repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. And for Congress to not act I think is absolutely not in the national interest.
GWEN IFILL: Lawmakers have introduced what they describe as veto-proof bills to kill the deal and, in some cases, future deals that would turn over control of secure U.S. businesses to foreign governments.
REP. ZACH WAMP (R), TENNESSEE: Why don't we encourage U.S. investment? You know, that's what the legislative branch can do. Let's stand up and be counted.
GWEN IFILL: House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis' plan, which he attached to a high-priority spending bill for Iraq, Afghanistan and Katrina relief, would ban any deal executed with Dubai Ports World since the beginning of the year. The committee approved his amendment late today.
GWEN IFILL: As the debate over the ports deal continues tonight, the president is finding his most stubborn opponents are members of his own party. For some insight into how this came to be, we turn to two Republicans: Jack Kingston of Georgia, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, taking action today against the ports deal; and Darrell Issa of California, a member of the House International Relations Committee.
Congressman Kingston, we heard Jerry Lewis, the chairman of the committee, say today that this is a national security threat. Is this a national security issue?
JACK KINGSTON (R), GEORGIA: Well, I think it is, to the degree that, at best, UAE has been a spotty ally on the war on terrorism. We know that they've had all kinds of financial and material transactions that have gone through Dubai that are not in our interest as we fight the war on terrorism.
And I think that what has happened, really just in the last week, even after the 45-day agreement, was the more we've looked into it, the less impressed we are with their track record. And that's why the House wanted to go ahead and move today.
GWEN IFILL: So you had originally decided that this 45-day agreement was OK -- at least you were quoted as saying that -- but now your position has hardened somewhat and you believe that this should be killed outright?
JACK KINGSTON: Yes, because what this is doing is it's keeping us from moving on to other issues, like Katrina relief, or like immigration reform, or tax relief, or energy independence, because everywhere we go this is the number-one issue that our constituents are talking to us about.
And I think that the mood of the House is, you know, we've got to get this one off the table so we can go on to some other issues.
GWEN IFILL: Representative Issa, we saw the mood of the House Appropriations Committee, at least today, was 62 votes in favor of this amendment and only two votes against. Is that what the mood ought to be?
REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: I'm afraid it's going to be. I don't think cooler heads are going to prevail tomorrow. Unfortunately, this has become a politicized issue that doesn't deal with the core facts that the vast majority of our port terminals are controlled by foreign companies, have been for a generation.
And, you know, if I have any objection to the legislation that was amended today, it's that the amendment is way too narrow. This should not be about Dubai or about any one foreign country; if we don't have complete security control, regardless of who owns the terminal, then, in fact, we need to change terminal operations procedures.
We need to change a lot of things on a homeland security basis, which I look forward to looking into. But I think it's a very bad message to, as Jack said, a spotty ally or not, the fact is that there are terrorists operating out of Great Britain. Great Britain will continue to own and operate these ports' terminals, if this deal doesn't go through.
We need to have a solution that says, no matter who owns, no matter who operates, these ports would be secure.
GWEN IFILL: Given what the concerns and the nervousness seems to be on Capitol Hill and in your home districts, as well, about this, Congressman Issa, do you think this was worth defying the president over?
DARRELL ISSA: Well, I actually think that we should have given the 45 days. I think we should have gone through the due diligence of this specific deal. And I think, in the meantime, the Congress, on a broad basis, should be looking at port security, port terminal ownership, and how we want to go forward.
Unfortunately, killing this deal isn't going to change a bit the fact that the vast majority of our port operations are controlled by foreign countries, some of whom, quite honestly, are a much greater threat, if a threat comes from a terminal operator, than Dubai.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman Kingston, obviously, if the vote on the House floor next week is as lopsided as the vote was in committee today, perhaps the president's veto could be overridden. Do you think that you're willing to do that?
JACK KINGSTON: I think that the House would override a veto, and I think the president will see those numbers. You know, there are still some wiggle room.
If the administration, on a very quick basis, can make the case for this, then I think we can amend that amendment within the committee process, perhaps even on the Senate floor, but I don't think that's likely. I think, right now, we're in a situation where an overwhelming majority would vote to override a veto, and I don't think the president would want to take on that battle.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that wiggle room doesn't sound very roomy then. What other options are there for not getting to that kind of showdown?
JACK KINGSTON: Well, if there's something that can be crafted in the language, as Darrell said, maybe make it wider so it doesn't look like it's just picking on the UAE, that's a possibility. But I just don't think the mood of this country, who we've been -- yesterday, we passed the Patriot Act.
We've been defending wiretapping to people talking to Al Qaeda overseas for months now. We've been talking about the war on terrorism and the need for increased security. Every time you fly to Washington, you go through endless transportation security line, you can't tell people now, "OK, but it's OK to have a foreign county owning our ports or managing our ports."
And I think that the concern has been as, well, we didn't even know this was going on, and now that we do, maybe we need to take a look at all of them.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about that, both you, Congressman -- I'll start with you, Congressman Kingston, and then ask Congressman Issa. We just heard Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, say in the committee today that she's heard more on this deal from people at home than almost anything else. Have you been hearing a lot from folks who you represent?
JACK KINGSTON: Yes. And now, what's interesting about that, Marcy Kaptur represents landlocked Ohio, or to some degree, whereas I represent coastal Georgia, with the port of Brunswick and Savannah on it. And yet, we're all hearing about this issue.
And I think that gets to what I was saying earlier: We can't move on with other issues, such as immigration reform or energy independence, because this is just the only thing people are talking about.
GWEN IFILL: Representative Issa, how about in your case? What are you hearing from the home district?
DARRELL ISSA: Very much the same thing. In San Diego, we're a major port. Particularly, we have a lot of tourism going in and out of San Diego and just to my north, Los Angeles.
I think even more importantly, though, people are asking me: Why is it the president can't answer specifics of why this deal, you know, shouldn't go through? This is one of the problems that I've been frustrated with the administration for, is it's not about whether Dubai is a good or a bad country; it's about whether or not port security will remain solid and, if so, how and why?
And I think that the absence of that message coming from the president is the reason that Congress is acting.
GWEN IFILL: I was struck today, Congressman Issa, that, at the same time that the House was acting in committee, Senate Democrats were trying to force a very similar amendment on the floor of the Senate. Do you think that Republicans -- part of their haste in this today was Republicans are trying to beat Democrats to the punch?
DARRELL ISSA: No, not at all. I think that the reactions that came out of Chairman Duncan Hunter, Chairman Peter King, these were independent, very quick reactions by people who care a great deal about security, who didn't have the answers they wanted coming out of the administration.
I happen to think the administration will be proven to have been substantially right. But, you know, it doesn't do any good in government or in politics to be right if you can't explain to your constituents why you need to go a certain way.
I would like to have that additional time for the administration, but I also would appreciate it if the administration, during this interim period before this bill comes to the president's desk, I think he has to make the case for why we're going to have independent security that makes ownership, per se, an irrelevant part of the equation.
GWEN IFILL: You use a very evocative term there, "runaway political train wreck." I'm going to ask you a very blunt question here: If this were not an election year, midterm elections this fall for so many people, would this be this hot an issue?
JACK KINGSTON: Well, I think you can't take the politics out of politics. But, at the same time, I think that when people are a little jittery in general right now, not because of this but maybe because of a series of other issues, you know, people do tend to act on their own turf and defend their own politics first. And so I think that is part of the equation.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Issa, the same question to you: Is that part of the equation?
DARRELL ISSA: I think it is part of the equation. I think they're bending to a 67 percent -- maybe misguided, but a 67 percent against electorate is inevitable in an election year.
GWEN IFILL: I have another question for you about the wiggle room point. And I'll start with you, Mr. Issa, which is: Do you think that if Dubai Ports World, as a company itself, just took itself out of this, decided not to follow through on this contract, withdrew from it, would this by itself defuse this and let the president off the hook, perhaps?
DARRELL ISSA: Well, it probably would for this particular episode, but for me personally, because I haven't -- no one's made a case of why Dubai isn't an ally or why they shouldn't get this contract, if other foreign countries have these contracts.
For me, I intend on following up, particularly through government reform, to find out, in fact, should we have any foreign ownership? And if so, are the controls in place?
I happen to believe that it's bad government to say we won't let one group with one religion in one section of the world have a contract and then let another government have it, unless you have controls that make this whole question of ownership irrelevant to the security part. We haven't accomplished anything but to anger one ally, even if they voluntarily pull out of this.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kingston, would that be enough for you, if Dubai Ports World decided to just pull out?
JACK KINGSTON: I think that would be a good start. But then I do think what Darrell is saying is, as we have increased globalization of our economy, from the clothes we wear, from the food we eat, from the arms that we equip our military with, you have lots of foreign components.
And so, as the world comes together at ports of entry, we're going to have to decide, OK, who's going to provide the security? Who's going to do the management? And this question is going to be one with us for 10 years.
GWEN IFILL: Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia and Darrell Issa of California, thank you both for joining us.