While the Nation Mourned, Their Trip Continued

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

A day after the death of former president Gerald R. Ford, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) embarked on what could be called his first official activity as the incoming Senate majority leader.

But it had nothing to do with Ford's funeral. Instead, Reid boarded a government plane bound for six days in South America, accompanied by wife Landra and five other Democratic and Republican senators and their spouses Dec. 27. Their mission: improved relations -- and New Year's in Machu Picchu.

The "Machu Men," as they were dubbed, included Reid and Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah).

Highlighting their trip: three hours of presidential meetings and two days touring the Incan ruins in Peru.

The senators did not change course after Ford's death, figuring they would insult leaders in a region none too happy with the United States to begin with, according to a Reid aide.

"This was a critical trip," said Reid spokesman James Manley. The group was seeking "cooperation on several fronts, including trade," as shown in official meetings -- and shopping at handicrafts bazaars.

They reported first to the U.S. embassy in Bolivia, for briefings -- a crafts exhibit, lunch and bipartisan gift-giving. Reid received a replica of the hand-knit sweater President Evo Morales wore on the campaign trail. Bennett got a "multicolored, pretty silly-looking hat," according to someone who saw it.

At the presidential palace, the senators had a "long, intense conversation," with Morales, Reid told reporters afterwards.

Dec. 29, it was on to Ecuador, for nearly an hour with President-elect Rafael Correa, known for his colorful neckties and epithets. The senators agreed to support extended trade benefits for Ecuador, despite Correa's vow to kill the lease on an air base used by the United States to hunt coke smugglers.

"We respect the sovereignty of Ecuador," Reid said, before the group left to see indigenous villages, their leaders and handicrafts.

Next came New Year's Eve, and two official holidays, meaning "not paid for with government money." The group dined in Cuzco and left early on New Year's Day for sightseeing in Machu Picchu.

Tuesday, as official Washington mourned Ford, the group clocked an hour with Peruvian President Alan Garcia, then flew home. Reid and Durbin, seeking a last chance to express their grief, then scored a government jet to Michigan for Ford's burial yesterday.

The senators and their spouses, Manley pointed out, were "the most high-powered, largest delegation to visit this region in many years."

After their visit, however, Morales announced that from now on, American tourists will need visas.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company