Senators who returned from a visit to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia last night made certain that they could be seen by voters at home through "video press releases" that were beamed back to the United States at taxpayer expense.
The 14-member delegation took along a television camera operator from the Senate Recording Studio for their visit.
The camera operator, a Senate employee, also arranged for the videotaped images to be sent back to home state television stations by satellite each day the group was in the region, according to Senate officials.
Some lawmakers, including Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) -- who are running for reelection this fall -- taped brief interviews with soldiers from their home states in the manner of television news correspondents. Stations in both states used parts of the tape, according to aides to the two senators.
The cost of the satellite time and the operator's expenses are being charged equally to the 14 lawmakers' offices, the officials said.
"It's a product you can't get any other way," an aide to Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), a member of the delegation, said of the Senate-produced videotape. "Dollars and cents don't really matter."
The Senate trip was organized by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was led by the panel's chairman, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), and its ranking Republican, Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.). Both Pell and Helms face strong challenges in this fall's elections.
A separate 23-member delegation of House members that toured the Middle East and returned Monday night did not take along their television operation, according to House leadership aides.
The Senate trip raised the art of video press releases to a new level. While still photographers employed by Congress often accompany lawmakers on overseas trips, it is unusual for a television camera operator to go along, Senate officials said.
Ever since satellite technology became widespread, lawmakers have used the House and Senate recording studios to package prepared video statements for home consumption. Aides often pose questions to their bosses much as a reporter would and the finished product is assembled into a package resembling a television news story.
Lawmakers' news aides alert local television stations when the material will be available on a satellite, and the broadcasters can pluck the pictures out of the sky without charge for local news shows.
Each party's campaign organizations in the House and Senate have similar operations.
Senate Recording Studio officials would not estimate how much the Middle East excursion will cost. But aides to senators on the trip said they were told that each satellite transmission was expected to run about $1,000, not including the camera operator's expenses.
In all, there were three Senate video dispatches from the Persian Gulf on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, each lasting about 10 minutes, according to Senate aides.