The Oman Free Trade Agreement, which hits the House floor today, has suddenly and surprisingly emerged as a potential weapon through which Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) can flex his leadership muscle and burnish his national security credentials as he positions himself to oppose Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for Majority Leader — a position that will only exist for Democrats if they win back the House this fall.
But there are risks for Murtha, whose leadership savvy might be questioned if OFTA breezes through the House despite his unexpectedly strident opposition.
The trade pact with the small, oil-rich sultanate cleared the Ways and Means Committee two weeks ago and had seemed headed for the kind of ho-hum ratification vote that an identical accord with Bahrain enjoyed last December. Most Democrats, including Hoyer, have publicly and privately centered their opposition around traditional labor concerns, but even Hoyer acknowledged early Tuesday afternoon that, given OFTA’s Republican support, “I would think it’s probably going to pass.”
But just hours later, Murtha, backed by three Democratic colleagues and Republican Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.), played a vastly different — and potentially more explosive — card, using a press conference to brand the pact “unconscionable” and suggesting it contained language, intentionally hidden from House Members, that would provide a backdoor route for foreign interests to own U.S. ports.
“The way I see it,” Murtha declared, “this vote is not so much about trade as about security: Our homeland security and our national security regarding threats of terrorism against our nation and our people from Muslim extremists.”
Murtha and his allies asserted the provisions they were highlighting — which they hoped would ignite the kind of public backlash that met the proposed acquisition of a U.S. port by the Dubai World Corporation earlier this year — were rapidly changing the vote count.
“Talking to my colleagues on the floor, the one issue that is definitely turning votes is this port security issue,” said Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), a one-time mill worker who has been organizing Democratic opposition to the pact and joined Murtha at the press conference Tuesday.
Predicted an aide to an anti-OFTA Democrat: “I think it’s one of these things that is catching fire in the last 48 hours. It’s going to be surprisingly close — closer than most people were expecting.”
At issue is language in the bulky agreement, which the White House signed off on in January, that would allow a “right of establishment” to any company based in Oman. Practically speaking, Murtha and his allies said, that would present an enticing avenue to Dubai Ports World, or any other company with dubious ties, to set up a front operation in Oman and then lay claim to a U.S. port. The treaty would allow the United States to block a potential port acquisition by claiming a national security interest, but it would be up to an international tribunal to determine if such a move was justified.
“As a matter of policy it is unconscionable to knowingly agree to any trade agreement that contains obligations that limit our national security authority regarding sensitive infrastructure such as our ports,” Murtha said.