Wall Street Journal cast Frist as Bush opponent on ports deal, ignored his later flip-flop

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

A Wall Street Journal article suggested that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist paved the way for Senate Republicans to oppose President Bush's push for the completion of a deal that would have permitted Dubai Ports World to take over port operations in six U.S. cities. However, while Frist initially expressed concern over the deal, he later shifted his position and aligned himself with supporters of the deal, distancing himself from strong opponents of the deal in both parties.

A March 10 news article (subscription required) by Wall Street Journal staff reporters Greg Hitt and Sarah Ellison suggested that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) paved the way for Senate Republicans to oppose President Bush's push for the completion of a deal that would have permitted Dubai Ports World (DPW) -- a company owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates -- to take over port operations in six U.S. cities. However, while Frist initially expressed concern over the deal and stated that he would introduce legislation to delay it pending a "more thorough review" of its effects on national security, he later shifted his position and aligned himself with supporters of the deal, distancing himself from strong opponents of the deal in both parties.

Hitt and Ellison wrote that, following the outcry over the deal, Frist "jumped directly into the fray -- on the side of slowing down the deal." They noted that his pledge to introduce legislation "ensur[ing] that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review," was "a signal to other Republicans that it not only was acceptable to oppose the port deal but also perhaps politically wise to do so."

However, Hitt and Ellison did not mention that Frist significantly shifted positions following that statement, after DPW agreed to an additional 45-day review by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS).

On February 26, Frist issued a press release announcing his support for the additional review. He also called upon the Senate to "await the outcome of that work before deciding on any legislative steps related to the DP World deal." The next day, The New York Times reported that Frist said he was "satisfied that the issue was now being handled properly." On February 28, the Times wrote that Frist "is now leaning toward supporting" the deal, saying that meetings with the administration along with the company's agreement to submit to an additional review had "answered many of his concerns." The Times noted that Frist's shift in position aligned him more closely with Sen. John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a staunch defender of the deal, than with other Senate Republicans who remained critical of the deal.

From the March 10 edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

As it happened, Mr. Frist, the top Senate Republican, had embarked on a fact-finding tour to study port security and immigration issues. He was arriving at the big port in Long Beach, Calif., and knew he'd be asked about the Dubai deal.

Mr. Frist, an avid BlackBerry user, had been peppered with concerns by his staff, lawmakers and constituents for several days, and aides said he felt he needed to jump out in front of the issue if he had any hope of ultimately controlling it. So he jumped directly into the fray -- on the side of slowing down the deal.

"The decision to finalize this deal should be put on hold until the administration conducts a more extensive review of this matter," Mr. Frist said. "If the administration cannot delay this process, I plan on introducing legislation to ensure that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review."

That declaration -- from a leading Republican, an ally of President Bush and a likely presidential contender in 2008 -- was a signal to other Republicans that it not only was acceptable to oppose the port deal but also perhaps politically wise to do so.

The political and media focus instantly grew more intense. House Speaker Dennis Hastert [R-IL] soon echoed Mr. Frist's complaints. Then Mr. Bush, on his way back from a speech in Colorado, met with reporters traveling on Air Force One and vowed to veto any legislation intended to reverse the deal. The president was digging in against top members of his own party. The hardening positions on both sides made it hard to find a face-saving compromise.

From the February 27 edition of The New York Times:

In a statement on Sunday evening, the Treasury Department, which oversees the review process, said it ''welcomed'' the company's decision. It cited the fact that the deal was ''restructured'' as a reason for looking at it a second time. But in fact, very little has changed in the structure of the deal, as the company's own executives acknowledged on Friday.

The announcement by the company created an opening for Republican leaders, who had sharply criticized the White House as paying insufficient attention to the deal. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, John W. Warner of Virginia, said they were satisfied that the issue was now being handled properly.

''We cannot mess this deal up,'' said Mr. Warner, who spent hours with executives from the company over the weekend. He emerged to praise them on the quality of their port operations and said on the NBC program ''Meet the Press,'' ''We as the United States are dependent on countries like the U.A.E., Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, all of them there, to give us the support to fight this war on terrorism.''

In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Frist said he would recommend that the Senate await the outcome of the more extensive review before deciding on any legislative action.

From the February 28 edition of The New York Times:

The tough questioning at the Senate session illustrated that deep reservations remained among lawmakers despite the agreement to conduct the new review.

However, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader and an early critic of the deal, is now leaning toward supporting it. In comments over the past few days, Mr. Frist has said private briefings by the administration on its rationale for backing the ports deal, combined with the agreement for the review, have answered many of his concerns.

The change in position, criticized by some Democrats, left Mr. Frist more in line with senior Republican senators like John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who intensified his defense of Dubai on Monday and emphasized its strategic military value to the United States.

''It is the only port in the region that we can dock our major supercarriers,'' Mr. Warner said on the Senate floor. ''In addition, their airfields are supporting the ongoing operations that we have in Afghanistan and Iraq.''

Other administration officials and lawmakers also highlighted Dubai's participation in an aggressive American security screening program and its role in new efforts to halt the financing of global terrorism.

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