Saturday, March 04, 2006

No Iraq Trip for Legislator Who Opposed Deal on Ports

The New York Times
No Iraq Trip for Legislator Who Opposed Deal on Ports

WASHINGTON, March 3 — Representative Peter T. King's prominent opposition to a proposal to allow a Dubai company to take over some terminal operations at American ports may have earned him some punishment from the Bush administration: He has been grounded.

Mr. King, the New York Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, confirmed Friday that a few days after he first threatened legislation to hold up the port deal, the Pentagon informed him that it could not provide an aircraft for his planned March Congressional delegation to Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A Feb. 22 e-mail notice to Mr. King's office said the legislative affairs branch of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office had determined "they do not have any aircraft to support" the official trip to Baghdad and other points. "Please advise if the CODEL will now pursue commercial air," it concluded, referring to the Congressional trip. Mr. King said he did not know if the paucity of aircraft was related to his leading role in the port dispute, but he was suspicious.

"It is very coincidental," said Mr. King, who talked reluctantly when pressed about the canceled trip, which had first been unintentionally disclosed by another lawmaker. Mr. King said that he did not intend to make an issue out of it or allow it to affect his stance in the port dispute.

At the Pentagon, a spokesman said that the decision on the trip was simply due to a lack of resources and that the port fight played no role. "We support as many trips as possible subject to the operational requirements of our military forces and the capacity of the command to support the visit," said the spokesman, Bryan Whitman. "Often Congressional requests to travel exceed our capacity to support."

The conflicting views illustrate the tension between Congress and the White House over a policy fight that has caused one of the deepest rifts of Mr. Bush's tenure with his Republican allies on Capitol Hill. The president's quick threat to veto any legislation blocking the takeover by the state-owned company DP World has been a sore point. Mr. King and other Republicans on Capitol Hill have been outspoken in challenging the administration on the port plan and their comments cannot have gone unnoticed at the White House.

Mr. King said the trip had been on the radar for months and all but a few minor details had been wrapped up. He said lawmakers had already adjusted their schedule once to avoid conflicting with another Congressional visit to Iraq in an effort not to strain American officials and troops. Four Republicans and two Democrats were scheduled to go to Iraq after a stop in Jordan to review a facility for training the Iraqi police.

Lawmakers have regularly visited Iraq and the surrounding region during the war, using military aircraft. Mr. Whitman, in his statement, said, "Congressional travel to observe our military is important to understanding our operations in theater."

Mr. King has broken with his party at points in his House career, including opposing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. But he has a conservative record on foreign policy issues and has been a strong supporter of Mr. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. King demonstrated that he had the confidence of the Republican leadership last year when he was named to the vacant chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois has been supportive of Mr. King in his challenge to the Dubai decision.

Two Congressional leadership aides, who would only speak anonymously because of the nature of the dispute, said Friday that some Congressional trips had been held up because of security concerns or a lack of aircraft, but the aides said they were surprised Mr. King's trip could not be accommodated.