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Congress declares war on ports deal

House committee votes 62-2 to block White House approval

Rep. Jerry Lewis helped attach a ports proposal to a bill funding the war in Iraq and hurricane relief.



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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congress sent its first shot across President Bush's bow Wednesday, as the House Appropriations Committee voted 62-2 to block a controversial deal that would allow Dubai Ports World to operate some terminals at U.S. ports.

The amendment was inserted into an emergency supplemental funding bill for military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill also includes about $19 billion in disaster assistance for the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The full House could vote on the measure as early as next week. The committee's approval was bipartisan. Democrat Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia and Republican Jim Kolbe of Arizona cast the only "no" votes.

The move comes after a series of congressional threats to challenge Bush. Members in both legislative houses announced this week they had introduced or were planning legislation to stop the United Arab Emirates-controlled firm from taking over operations at some U.S. ports. (Watch Republicans rocking the boat over the ports deal -- 1:36)

Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, worked with other GOP leaders to amend the $68 billion Iraq war spending bill to include language that addresses security concerns raised by the deal.

The White House said it was concerned about the Lewis amendment because it could slow the passage of important legislation.

"We need to equip our troops," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "It's about funding our troops to get what they need to win in Iraq and the war on terror, and to provide critical funds to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and to help those affected by last year's hurricane."

Also Wednesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, introduced an amendment that would bar a company from operating in a U.S. port if the company is owned by a country that recognized the Taliban's regime in Afghanistan. The UAE is one of three countries that did so, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. (Questions about the deal answered)

After Schumer introduced his amendment, inserted into a lobbying reform bill, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, asked for a quorum call, which essentially gnarled proceedings.

Senate Democrats expressed frustration that their amendment -- touted as similar to the one voted on by the House committee -- didn't make it to the voting stage.

"We as a caucus decided the time was right for a vote. We have bent over backwards to try and accommodate the Republican schedule," said Schumer. "The bottom line is they just don't want a vote."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who said Frist also barred senators from trying again Thursday to vote on the measure, called the tactic "typical spin by Republican Washington."

"We want a vote on the Dubai ports scandal. Is that asking too much?" Reid asked.

Back in the House, another proposal awaits congressional attention. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit foreign ownership of "critical infrastructure," including the handful of cargo terminals at the center of the controversy. (Watch Hunter explain how 'great Republicans' are working to kill the ports deal -- 3:27)

About 75 percent of all cargo containers entering the United States go through terminals operated by foreign companies.

DP World, a government-controlled firm, is attempting to acquire Britain-based Peninsular & Oriental operations at U.S. terminals as part of a $6.8 billion deal.

President Bush has said he would veto any legislation blocking the deal because it would send the wrong message to an Arab ally in the war on terror. It would be Bush's first veto in his five years as president.

Opponents of the takeover say that DP World should not operate terminals at U.S. ports because the UAE has had questionable ties to terrorism.

Speaking Tuesday, before the House committee vote, DP World Chairman Sultan Bin Sulayem expressed confidence that the transaction will pass congressional muster and reiterated that security is a primary concern of the company.

Under intense political pressure, DP World recently agreed to delay any takeover of P&O's American port operations until a 45-day security review can be conducted.

Bin Sulayem said Tuesday he has "no doubt" that the 45-day review will allay congressional concerns. And while Sulayem said he appreciates scrutiny from lawmakers, he also said Congress doesn't thoroughly understand the particulars of the deal, "even though the White House does." (Watch why a DP World exec believes his company can meet American security standards -- 12:10)

"I think this 45 days that we have volunteered for review is a good chance for all of us," Bin Sulayem said. "I think by the end of this they'll realize there is no fear, no worry about security. Security is a very important thing for us."

With the hope of mitigating the controversy, two top Republicans have submitted proposals to the White House.

New York Rep. Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has floated a proposal under which DP World would subcontract operations at the terminals to U.S. companies. DP World still would get the profits, but would have access to no security information.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has put forth a similar proposal.

CNN's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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