Republicans to defy Bush and block ports deal

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The Independent US

President George Bush is facing a fierce showdown with members of his own party after Republicans on Capitol Hill voted to prevent a Dubai-owned company taking charge of five US ports. Mr Bush has indicated he would veto any such bill.

In a 62-2 vote, the House Appropriations Committee last night voted to block DP World from holding contracts to run five US ports. The full House could vote on the measure next week.

Prior to the vote, Mr Bush's spokesman said the president's position had not changed and indicated he would for the first time in five years use a presidential veto to block the legislation.

"The President's position is unchanged," said spokesman Scott McClellan, as Mr Bush flew to New Orleans. "We're continuing to work closely with Congress. We recognise that some members have concerns. The lines of communication are open."

The escalating row over the $3.9bn takeover of the port's management - currently operated by the British company P&O Ports - has become the most serious clash between Mr Bush and his own party during his presidency. He has argued there is no practical difference between the ports being operated by a British-based company and one based in the United Arab Emirates.

But the majority of the US public disagree and just eight months away from crucial Congressional elections Republicans on Capitol Hill are keen not to give Democrats the opportunity of criticising them for being soft on national security. A majority of Democrats are likely to support the legislation when it comes before the full House next week, attached to a $91bn measure designed to help those states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

"We are going to send a very clear signal that we want to have American interests secured by leaders in America," said Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, chair of the appropriations committee.

Meanwhile Democrats in the Senate are also calling for a similar vote on whether the ports' control should be shifted to the Dubai-based company. "We believe an overwhelming majority will vote to end the deal," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.

The government's handling of the aftermath of Katrina, which killed more than 1,300 people in three states and caused billions of dollars of damage, is just one of the reasons for Mr Bush's poor ratings. The issue of Iraq has also become a hugely divisive issue among voters.

In his latest attempt to try and show he is busy working on Katrina's recovery effort, Mr Bush yesterday made his 10th visit to the Gulf coast.

Mr Bush was taken to the Industrial Canal levee which was breached during the storm, devastating the Lower Ninth Ward. His motorcade took him to the predominantly black neighbourhood that remains largely abandoned.Demolition of the worst-damaged homes in that area only started last week.

"I'm getting a view of the progress that is being made," he said, after the tour. "There's still a lot of work to be done, no doubt about it."

The Bush administration has been widely criticised for its handling of the crisis. Yesterday that criticism resurfaced from an unexpected quarter when Rick Perry, the Republican Governor of Texas, criticised Mr Bush - the previous incumbent - for turning his back on the state. He said Texas had dealt with the greatest numbers of refugees and yet the federal government was directing more emergency funding to other states.