If the Trip Abroad Is Bipartisan, It's Not a Junket

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, August 16, 2007

'Tis the season for congressional trips abroad. But, unlike in years past, the trips members of Congress are taking this August recess aren't exactly junkets, thanks to the new-and-improved ethics rules.

This week, a group of about 18 House Democrats led by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) is in Israel, courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation, a bipartisan nonprofit group affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- the lobbying organization for Israel. Republicans went last week. A boondoggle it is not.

We hear that some Republicans complained last week about not getting enough free time. The grueling schedule for both trips has included back-to-back meetings with top Israeli and Palestinian government officials, military and intelligence officers, academics, journalists and families of kidnapped Israeli soldiers.

Several politicians have either already taken or are planning a trip to Iraq, including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who continues the guessing game about whether he'll be running for reelection. Warner and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) left for Iraq yesterday.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) led a group of mostly freshman senators on a global warming trip to Greenland to see melting glaciers last week. But it really sounds as if Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and David Obey (D-Wis.) may have gotten the best gig.

Murtha and Obey led a bipartisan trip to France for the ostensible purpose of visiting the new Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial -- for which they had secured federal funding. They also had a brief stopover in Paris for a ceremony at the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial and briefings by embassy staff on the new French government.

The trip has caused something of a headache for Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) -- and not just from the wine. (Rehberg, some readers may recall, took a taxpayer-funded congressional delegation trip several years ago to Kazakhstan, where, after drinking several shots of vodka, he fell off a horse, got trampled by another, broke his ribs and allegedly called the locals "coneheads.") The Montana Democratic Party is attacking Rehberg for his participation in the week-long excursion to France and another trip this week to South America orchestrated by a group called the Montana World Trade Center (which also has hosted Democratic lawmakers in the past).

The state party's executive director, Jim Farrell, said, "We're fighting fires out here; he's been gone for two weeks." Separately, in a news release, he said, "Instead of being here for the men and women fighting the Chippy Creek fire, I suppose Rehberg is cavorting on the beaches of Ipanema, or perusing the artists' stalls along the Seine."

Rehberg spokesman Bridger Pierce called Farrell's charges "absolutely ridiculous." He pointed out that the temperatures in Chile this week are in the 50s. (Though it is prime bikini weather in Brazil, another stop on the trip.) And another thing, Pierce said: "How do you say [Rehberg is] ignoring Montana? He's down there promoting Montana businesses trying to create more jobs for Montana."

Iron Woman

Three days after baseball's "Iron Man," Cal Ripken, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) displayed Ripkenesque dedication to her streak of consecutive roll-call votes cast. After more than 10 1/2 years of never missing a vote, Collins had to bail out early from a committee hearing Aug. 1 and dash from a Senate office building through the Capitol tunnels and up onto the ornate Senate floor, getting there just in time to record a "nay" vote on an amendment about children's health insurance.

"Suffice it to say, my ankle really hurts today," Collins explained just before the congressional recess began, pointing to an ankle swollen from running the day before in heels.

Collins adheres to a Maine tradition started by the late senator Margaret Chase Smith (R), who once went 13 straight years without missing a vote. Collins has already surpassed her childhood idol in the raw number of consecutive votes cast, sitting on a streak that now tops 3,500 votes. Proud of her own record, Collins is still 2 1/2 years short of the longest current streak by a senator, held by Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who's cast a vote on more than 5,000 consecutive roll calls dating to July 1993. And neither Collins nor Grassley is anywhere near the all-time consecutive voting record. That's held by the late senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.), whose streak lasted 22 years, for a grand total of 10,252 straight roll calls without missing a "yea" or "nay."

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