From the steam room to the tractor: Lawmakers make most of summer recess

Whether in Iceland, Iraq or Panama, lawmakers found a variety of ways to learn about issues and relax ahead of a fall that promises to be anything but harmonious.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), for example, traveled to Iceland to research environmental and global warming issues. She discovered that the land there is in fact not icy this time of year, but covered in a deep green moss. Boxer toured a geothermal energy plant and tried a yogurt-like local favorite, which is apparently also available at Whole Foods, as she found out.

She also packed in visits to Britain and France in a five-day adventure. After touring a French reprocessing plant, Boxer traveled to nearby Normandy and visited the World War II memorial, calling the experience “very emotional.”

“I had family that died in the Holocaust, and to see that memorial for the people that died in the war — it was amazing.” she said. “I’m feeling very energized and I’ve got a lot on my plate.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s (D-Texas) summer travels led her to the Sudan on a congressional delegation. It was the first congressional visit to Darfur since the United Nations authorized a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force for the troubled region.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) visited Panama on Labor Day to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty. Other lawmakers used the district work period to travel to Iraq and other areas in the Middle East.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), for instance, went to Iraq and Kuwait with a congressional delegation that included freshman Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.). The group spoke with Gen. David Petraeus ahead of the report he is preparing for the White House to present to Congress in mid-September. Meek slept very little on his two-day trip. “We slept during the slow ride to and from Fallujah for maybe two and a half hours,” Meek said. “I won’t need to take any Ambien or anything. I’ll be able to sleep.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) traveled to Iraq and Israel as well as extensively touring his home state of Georgia. In Iraq, Kingston met with military leaders, including Petraeus, to discuss progress there. Back in Georgia, Kingston visited a century-old monument to Confederate soldiers.

“The monument had been overgrown in the woods and people forgot about it,” explained Kingston. “A man basically rediscovered it and used his own money to reopen it.”  

Kingston also took a boat along the Georgia coast on Tybee Island to climb up a lighthouse that he is working to save. But Kingston said he wouldn’t call his August a vacation.

“This was all work, but being out of Washington is downtime. Nobody back home tolerates all this extreme partisanship that has marked this summer. You can be reminded that you’re there for America and not your party,” he said.

Other lawmakers who went to the Middle East included Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who traveled to Iraq to gather information, meet with troops and see firsthand the mounting Iraqi refugee crisis in Jordan. Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Jon Porter (R-Nev.) joined Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a senior defense appropriator, for his trip to Iraq.

For other members, however, spending time with family took priority. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) said the time he spent with his daughter Alex was all the more special because the 6-year-old had a brain tumor two years ago.

Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M) took an old-fashioned camping trip with his cousin Randy Udall, the brother of Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), to Wind River Mountain Range in northwest Wyoming. They hiked 13 miles into the campsite and “basically ate fish for breakfast, sometimes lunch and dinner,” according to Udall press secretary Marissa Padilla. Tom even caught a 20-inch cutthroat trout. Udall’s wife Jill Cooper, however, preferred not to rough it and stayed home in the district.

“It was very restful and I’m recharged and ready to go for the fall,” Udall said.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) abandoned plans to ride the Columbia River on a barge in favor of relaxing in the steam room of his new Idaho Falls home, while Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) recharged her batteries by sailing.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary to his wife, Elaine, whom he met in an astronomy class at Brigham Young University. Hatch and his wife celebrated with their six children and their many grandchildren, who are affectionately nicknamed “Hatchlings.”

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) spent a day at his favorite beach in Narragansett, R.I., reading the The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman and playing with his nephew and nieces.

Other lawmakers spent the break working and relaxing in their home districts. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was busy thinking over the break in the place he does it best — on his tractor. Tester used the first week of August to harvest wheat, barley, lentils and peas at his farm in Montana.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was busy planning and hosting a “Hope & Recovery Summit” to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The event featured panel discussions about recovery and a question-and-answer segment with presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) returned to his home district and attended welcome back events in his honor as he continues to recover from his stroke, including a public “Thank you South Dakota” event on Aug. 28.

Part of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) recess was spent riding in a charity bike race across Massachusetts. Kerry, a prostate cancer survivor, helped raise $25,000 this year for cancer research. He finished the race ahead of most of his much younger staffers, coming in at five and a half hours.