Traveling abroad in August

Lawmakers readily accepted diplomatic and investigative missions during the August recess, traveling to far-flung, volatile locales to see firsthand how American soldiers are fighting and rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan and to learn whether government programs are effectively combating terrorism, the drug trade, disease and poverty.

Lawmakers’ attitudes toward foreign travel today are much different than they were a decade ago, when former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said, “I’ve been to Europe once. I don’t have to go again.”

Unrelenting political upheaval, violence and energy resources led members to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Israel. They also visited Venezuela, China, Japan, Guam, Russia and Europe.

Most legislators traveled as part of congressional delegations (codels), which are fact-finding missions paid for by the government and usually led by committee chairmen or senior lawmakers. Some traveled at the expense of private foundations.

Two groups of lawmakers went to Iraq in the past month. Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Ed Case (D-Hawaii) headed to the war-torn nation late last week. Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Tim Holden (D-Pa.) spent 48 hours in Iraq early last month and visited a Marine Corps and Iraqi army outpost at the Syrian border where foreign terrorists are suspected to have been sneaking into Iraq.

The lawmakers examined the Iraqi army’s performance, the re-armoring of the Humvees and technology U.S. soldiers are using to jam the electronic signals terrorists use to set off roadside bombs.

“We were really looking at specific issues of security that affect our troops,” said Lynch, who has been to Iraq three times. “While we were in agreement in terms of things that needed to be improved there, we all saw gaps and areas that needed greater protection. The morale was very good under the circumstances, but we all felt we could be doing more to protect the troops.”

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who led the first codel to Libya last year after the country bowed to U.S. pressure to end its bid to acquire nuclear weapons, went back in July to meet with Muammar Gadhafi, that nation’s longtime dictator. Weldon and the six-member codel then flew to Lebanon and England.

Some members made political waves and, on a trip to Russia, nearly were involved in an international incident. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who wrote legislation that created a program more than a decade ago to help the former Soviet Union destroy its nuclear stockpile, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) were detained for several hours by Russian authorities who had demanded to search their airplane.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), often mentioned as a potential candidate for president in 2008, spent 10 days in Russia, Italy and Bulgaria.

A staff codel came under some criticism from the American Hellenic Institute. The pro-Greek outfit rebuked seven House and Senate aides for accepting a trip paid for by the Northern Cyprus Chamber of Industry and flying into the airport in Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus.

The American Israel Education Foundation, part of the pro-Israel pressure group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, flew two groups of lawmakers to Israel.

House leaders Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and nine other Republicans visited Israel and met Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to talk about his decision to withdraw from Gaza.

“He indicated it was a very difficult decision and stressed the pragmatic nature of what the Israeli army is trying to do by consolidating its resources,” Cantor said. “I don’t think there was any unrealistic sense of optimism because the Palestinians have done nothing to combat terrorism.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) led the Democratic delegation and agreed, in part, with Cantor’s assessment. “The fact of disengagement, we believed, provides an impetus for possibility of further progress,” he said.

Several lawmakers traveled to Asia.
Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who wrote in his book Speaker that he would like to be named ambassador to Japan, led a seven-member delegation to Japan, Mongolia and China.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) traveled to China and Guam.

During the recess, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the Bush administration should stop its criticism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Specter traveled to the poor but oil-rich South American nation to persuade Chavez to reverse his decision to eject Drug Enforcement Administration officers from his country.

Meanwhile, Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), senior members of the International Relations Committee, traveled to North Korea.