It takes a lot for President Bush to beckon reporters to his cozy conference room on Air Force One for a chat. But on Tuesday, Bush did just that, calling the press to the front of the plane to defend his administration's approval of a deal that would hand over control of six major U.S. seaports to a company, Dubai Ports World, controlled by the United Arab Emirates.
The deal has sent members of Congress into open revolt, including, most notably, the Hill's top two Republicans, Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, who threatened Tuesday to introduce legislation that would block the takeover. The lawmakers questioned the security risks of handing the ports to a country that may be an ally in the war on terror, but sits in a region forever linked to the 9/11 attacks.
Seemingly caught off guard, the White House immediately pushed back, sending Bush before reporters to defend the deal and to offer a rare veto threat on any legislation that would seek to undermine it. Bush told reporters the deal had been heavily scrutinized by members of his administration. He also suggested that opposition to the deal was motivated by bias against a Middle Eastern company. "I really don't understand why it's OK for a British company to operate our ports, but not a company from the Middle East," Bush told reporters on Air Force One. "[Members of Congress] ought to look at the facts and understand the consequences of what they're going to do. But if they pass a law, I'll deal with it, with a veto."
Yet the political firestorm over the deal should not have caught the White House by surprise. Several congressional Republicans tell NEWSWEEK that the warning signals of a political tempest were passed down Pennsylvania Avenue beginning early last week when news of the deal went public.
One warning sign: On Valentine's Day, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican known as one of Bush's most loyal allies on the Hill, urged senior White House aides -- whom he has publicly declined to name -- to rethink the proposal. King, who heads the House's Homeland Security Committee, told the aides that more deliberation was needed. Afterwards, the congressman told reporters that he believed the White House was taking the deal "very seriously" and "would look into it." Yet two days later, King came out more forcefully against the deal, airing his grievances in a joint press conference with Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat known as one of Bush's most vocal opponents in Washington. The New York lawmakers called for an emergency law or moratorium to stop the deal before it is finalized on March 2.
"[National Security Agency] wiretapping, the Iraq war -- all of these gut issues, I stand by him, but this I can't," King told the New York Daily News on Tuesday. "When the president says, what's the difference between Britain and Dubai, I mean, Britain didn't recognize the Taliban before 9/11," King said in a reference to Dubai Ports' purchase of the London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
On the Hill on Tuesday, Republicans fumed that the White House didn't consult with Congress about the deal -- even though the administration was not obligated to do so. "They've had a political tin ear about how this would play out," one senior GOP leadership aide told NEWSWEEK. "They really just don't get it." But even Bush didn't seem to be fully aware of the situation. According to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, Bush wasn't briefed on the proposal and only learned of the deal by reading press coverage last week.
In a rare mea culpa, McClellan told reporters on Wednesday that the White House had made a mistake in not fully briefing members of Congress. In attempt to boost support, administration officials began briefing members of Congress and key staffers on the deal, beginning with aides to Frist.
The issue has revived talk about the testy relationship between the White House and Congress, especially the White House's ability to anticipate and perhaps prevent breaks in the Bush-GOP ranks. Bush's congressional lobbying team, led by Candi Wolff, has long been a source of angst among Republicans, who say the legislative affairs office has not made the necessary political inroads among lawmakers.
In recent weeks, Wolff's team has been operating at reduced strength. Earlier this month, Matthew Kirk, Bush's widely respected Senate liaison left the White House for K Street. Administration officials have not announced a replacement. Kirk, who worked for Senate GOP leadership before coming to the White House, was especially close to Frist, who has maintained a less than harmonious relationship with senior Bush aides in recent months. On Tuesday, Frist reportedly gave the White House only an hour's notice that he would be coming out against the port deal. It seems the lack of communications is a two-way street.
While Bush says he'll veto any attempt to block the port deal, congressional critics have threatened to derail one of the president's nominees. Last month, in an unfortunate bout of timing, the White House nominated David Sanborn, a former Dubai Ports World executive, to head the Transportation Department's Maritime Administration. Sanborn was the focus of a confirmation hearing earlier this month, but critics, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., have threatened to block the nomination.
In a sign of how stormy the politics is, the Republican National Committee forwarded reporters excerpts of a Wall Street Journal editorial slamming critics of the deal. While the RNC release highlighted portions of the editorial critical of Democrats, it omitted every mention of Republicans -- including the editorial's opening paragraphs which highlighted the opposition of Frist and other GOP critics. "This behavior of Republicans strikes us as peculiar coming from people who claim to support the war on terror," the WSJ opined, in a sentence not included in the RNC release. President Bush always wanted to make Washington a more bipartisan place. Unintentionally, he seems to have succeeded.
Listening to President Bush extol the virtues of solar energy and hybrid vehicles, it's hard to believe this is the same man who campaigned against Al Gore in 2000. Times change, and so does the price of oil. But the evolution of George W. Bush's green dream is still an extraordinary development.
In Auburn Hills, Michigan, on Monday, Bush listened to a 45-minute private briefing on solar technology at a company that manufactures thin strips of solar cells -- the kind of thing you can put on your roof in place of shingles. "Solar technology is commercial, and particularly because they've figured out ways to make long rolls of this photovoltaic technology," the president raved. "This technology right here is going to help us change the way we live in our homes."
Earlier in the day, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bush explored the latest in hybrid SUVs, in the shape of new battery technology. Speaking to a business crowd at Johnson Controls, Bush said the new technologies were critical to the nation's economy. "What I'm telling you is oil, the dependence upon oil, is a national security problem and an economic security problem," he said.
Rewind the tape five years, to the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, and you'd hear another George W. Bush. As he criss-crossed the country in late 2000, the then-Governor ridiculed his opponent for targeting tax cuts to promote environmental policies.
"Let me ask you this: how many of you own [a] hybrid electric-gasoline engine vehicle," Bush asked one crowd in Green Bay, Wisconsin, prompting guffaws in the crowd by chewing on the jargon like it was an indigestible meal. "How many of you have a roof-top photovoltaic system? Well if you do, you get a little tax relief under the targeted tax cuts."
Bush's aides now insist that their goal in 2000 was to criticize Gore for making green policies the foundation of his macro-economic policy. It's true that Bush was directing his comments to Gore's tax cuts. But he was also ridiculing him for what he suggested was a loopy commitment to the kind of policies he is now pushing.
To underscore that message, the Bush campaign taped an ad with Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler chairman. Iacocca's message was tailored to Michigan (the very same state Bush was touting new hybrid technologies this week). And his target wasn't tax cuts; it was Gore's views on the internal combustion engine, as outlined in his book Earth In The Balance (Plume Books, 1992.) "Al Gore may see the car as our enemy, but in Michigan it's our jobs," Iacocca said to camera. (Ironically, Iacocca ended up supporting John Kerry in 2004.)
Republicans had long mocked Gore for his green concerns. Bush's father read passages from Earth In The Balance in 1992 as he campaigned in Michigan. "He calls for the 'elimination of the internal combustion engine.' What kind of people are we dealing with here," the 41st president asked. That was a tactic repeated by Dick Armey, the hugely influential Texas congressman. Armey would read passages of the book on the House floor, while his aides would send the passages to talk radio and other members of Congress.
Bush's aides say the president has not evolved into a green crusader, like Gore. After all, the White House isn't speaking provocatively about the environmental threats posed by car engines. And its economic focus on taxes is directed towards businesses, not households, in the shape of tax credits for research and development.
Still, the evolution of Bush's thinking has been surprisingly rapid, following the spike in gas prices over the last year (and the president's corresponding decline in his poll numbers). Some parts of the federal government are still trying to catch up with the White House. That would include the Department of Energy, which first cut then quickly reinstated 32 jobs at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that the president was visiting in Colorado on Tuesday.
Speaking on a panel at the lab, a sheepish president said: "I recognize that there has been some interesting -- let me say -- mixed signals when it comes to funding." Looking back over the last five years, the signals seem clear; it's the president's change of direction that is interesting.