WASHINGTON -- With Congress out of town, the halls of the Capitol are quiet this week. But inside the House and Senate office buildings - and in state and district outposts across the country - staffers are straining to answer a flood of phone calls about the prospect of a Middle Eastern company buying into port operations in six major U.S. cities, including Baltimore.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes has been inundated with hundreds of calls since the news broke about approval of the deal involving a United Arab Emirates-owned company, said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for the Maryland Democrat. Last week, Dubai Ports World won government approval to buy a British company that manages major port operations in Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Miami and Newark, N.J. The state's other senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, logged 250 calls from constituents in the first two days of the workweek.
Conservative Republican Rep. Mark Foley, one of the first members of Congress to complain about the deal, has faced a similar deluge - and not just from constituents. Jason Kello, a Foley spokesman, said that a British man called after seeing the Florida congressman on a BBC news show expressing dismay that British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. was being sold.
Few, if any, of these calls and e-mails support the deal, which was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, a secretive administration panel. News of the sale has prompted unusually fiery, and bipartisan, opposition in Congress - and an equally staunch defense from the White House.
As the number of calls and e-mails rises, so does the involvement of elected officials. Initial criticism of the deal came from lawmakers in the states with ports affected by the sale, but over the past few days it has spread to those without a geographical interest, such as Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader.
Many have used the weeklong President's Day recess to stage news conferences or write angry news releases informing constituents of their position.
"Public outrage on this is what's driving this for many of the politicians," said Kello, the congressional aide. "This is a result of talk radio. This is a result of cable news."
He said the prevailing sentiment from callers has been "outrage, shock and awe" that the Bush administration would sign off on such a deal. He said Florida's Foley had not received a single call in favor of allowing a Middle Eastern government to own a company that works in American seaports.
Congressional staffers are accustomed to talking to constituents, though the conversations tend to focus more on mundane issues, such as obtaining passes for a visit to the Capitol, inquiring about a local project or dealing with a Social Security problem. All communication is carefully logged, and most politicians get at least a quick briefing on what voters in their district or state are thinking.
These days, when calls come in about the port deal, staffers let the callers know what their member of Congress thinks. In Sen. Rick Santorum's office, callers are directed to the senator's Web site, which includes an op-ed article he wrote opposing the Dubai Ports World deal. The Pennsylvania Republican, who faces a tough re-election fight, has also posted a letter he sent to the White House asking President Bush to reconsider his administration's approval.
Sara Paterni, a staff assistant in the office of Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has been explaining that her boss, whose district includes the Port of Baltimore, opposes the sale and has called for congressional hearings on the way it was approved. Ruppersberger's offices have handled about 40 calls this week, spokeswoman Heather Molino said.
Molino and others said the calls seemed to be the result of spontaneous opposition from average citizens.
"I would say it is a significant spike on what is percolating as both a national issue and a very local issue," said Jacobs, the Sarbanes spokesman, who added that many of the calls are coming from the Baltimore area.
"These are people who would be significantly impacted if something unfortunate happens," he said.
Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, said the anger over the port deal reminded her of the reaction to the House banking scandal in 1992, which prompted outrage from constituents and helped pave the way for the Republican takeover of Congress two years later.
"I think it's caught fire. It's something that people can understand," said Sullam, who added that Cardin's office had logged "pages and pages" of calls this week. "A lot of them want to just talk about it."