Leadership knows Rep. Duncan Hunter's arm doesn't twist

It is difficult to change Rep. Duncan Hunter’s mind. House leadership officials and the White House have found that out the hard way.

When they wanted him to vote for a pending trade bill last year, Hunter (R-Calif.) refused — again and again. And when the Bush administration tried to convince the powerful Armed Services Committee on its controversial port security plan, Hunter refused to budge.

Twisting Hunter’s arm is impossible, his close friends say.

“The politics of the process does not really concern him,” said Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), his colleague on the House Armed Services Committee who has known Hunter for 14 years. “He’ll never refuse to listen and works hard to build a base of support” for his ideas.

That has made Hunter predictable to his party, but sometimes also an unwieldy force to the Bush administration.

He refuses to vote for free-trade agreements even when the administration and leadership officials are angling for each and every vote, as was the case with the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

And Hunter, whom many call a protectionist, was instrumental in scuttling a deal that would have given the operations at six major U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates.

“He was shocked that the administration approved the deal,” said Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), a senior member of Hunter’s committee and a close friend. Saxton worked with Hunter to introduce legislation blocking the deal and revising the foreign-investment process to ensure national security.

“On the Dubai issue, he got all fired up,” a congressional source said. Hunter gathered information to prove that Dubai has not been trustworthy — despite repeated administration assertions that the UAE is a vital ally in the war on terrorism.

It is not often that a guest on a TV news program has the boldness to put the interviewer’s political-activism past in the open, but Hunter wasn’t one to shy away. He made sure to point out, three times, that George Stephanopoulos, the host of ABC’s “This Week,” had worked for President Clinton, who supported the Dubai Ports deal.

“I don’t think President Clinton, your old boss, knows the facts of the transshipment that take place through Dubai sending nuclear components to all parts of the world,” Hunter told Stephanopoulos, in one of the references to Clinton.

Fighting for national security and the men and women in uniform is Hunter’s guiding mantra, according to those who know him well.

At a time when some GOP members are starting to cast doubts on the situation in Iraq, Hunter has been a steadfast supporter of Bush’s approach to the Middle Eastern country.

“I think we are going to be as successful as we were in … [disassembling] the Soviet empire, as successful as we were in bringing democracy to nations in Central America,” said Hunter, who went on several delegations to Iraq.

Hunter opposes troop withdrawal from Iraq until U.S. commanders feel that Iraqi forces have been adequately trained to defend the country.

The Armed Services Committee chairman also became the administration’s defender of U.S. conduct at military-detainee facilities at a time when human rights organizations, internal FBI and military reports, and lawmakers were decrying the inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Almost a year ago, Hunter went to the grocery store to buy the groceries and cooking supplies for the famous orange-glazed chicken and lemon-baked fish from the menu served at Guantanamo Bay.

Hunter held a press conference with the meal, saying at the time, “We treat [the prisoners] very well.”

He also called the criticism of the prisoners’ treatment “wild accusations.”

“Duncan is a very bright and dedicated individual, and when he has the ability to be creative for the forces that ups the power surge,” said Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), one of Hunter’s closest friends and a member of his committee. “If he were an atomic-energy clock, the energy would come from the men and women in uniform.”

“He is just a passionate person who sees it like he sees it,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a centrist who fought for a provision seeking greater controls of detainee treatment in the House. “Congress needs Chairman Hunter. It is not my voice, but people need to hear from people like him,” he said.

Hunter dropped out of college to join the Army and fight in Vietnam. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in 24 helicopter combat assaults in Vietnam.

But to this day, Hunter refuses to go back to Vietnam, and according to a source he said that the only way he would come face to face with a Vietnamese is “at the end of my rifle.”

Hunter did not return calls for an interview by press time.

Hunter is a strong supporter of increased defense spending, ensuring the military it has what it needs to fight wars and to transform. While Hunter is seen as a defense hawk ready to dole out money for various programs, the defense industry has mixed feelings about the chairman.

Hunter is a strong “Buy American” supporter. Buy American rules mandate that at least 50 percent of all work on defense contracts be completed domestically.

He also guards the principles of the so-called Berry Amendment, which mandates that all specialty metals going into military weapons systems be made in the United States.

“Hunter comes by these ideas very honestly,” an industry source said. “He has never been in the position to pull this stuff until he became chairman,” but Hunter “has not grown to recognize the reality of global trade and global commerce,” the source added.

His views are so strict that Hunter refuses to get into a foreign-made car. “He can be Detroit’s poster child,” said a source familiar with the congressman.

Hunter voted for only one trade agreement, when Bush first was elected president, Saxton recalled. “He was anguished,” said Saxton, who stood next to him while Hunter voted.

“Mr. Bush is my president, and I have to do this,” Saxton remembered Hunter saying. He voted for the bipartisan trade-promotion authority act, but later, when it was rolled into a larger bill, the Trade Act of 2002, Hunter voted against it.