Congress

Road trip: Romney and Murphy the newest Senate Middle East travel team

Leaders of the Middle East subcommittee returned from countries including Israel and Iraq

Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, left, and Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., arrive for a briefing in the Capitol to discuss a recent congressional delegation trip to the Middle East. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As the leaders of the Senate subcommittee focused on foreign policy in the Middle East, Sens. Mitt Romney and Christopher S. Murphy might be spending a lot of time together overseas in the coming years.

The Republican from Utah and Democrat from Connecticut are back at the Capitol this week after spending the second half of the spring recess meeting with regional leaders in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Iraq.

Traveling the world is often the best opportunity that senators have to grasp the situation on the ground in parts of the world where they have responsibility, and as former Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said in an interview at the end of last year, it was among the advice he offered to new senators who asked.

It’s also a chance for senators to get to know each other outside the Capitol’s charged partisan environment.

Romney and Murphy set off together on April 23. The trip focused on policy challenges in the region, but that didn’t stop them from doing a bit of sightseeing.

“As we board the plane to Tel Aviv, Sen. Romney notes that we’re going to be flying on a brand new 787 and starts detailing for me how the new 787 carbon fiber hulls allow for the cabin to be more highly pressurized, leading to a smoother ride,” Murphy said in a statement. “Sen. Romney’s encyclopedic knowledge of airplanes (gleaned from running a few airlines in his business days) becomes a running theme of the trip. Every plane we board, I turn to Sen. Romney and ask, ‘What’s this one, Mitt?’”

Romney and his wife, Anne, posted photos from the Old City of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, while Murphy posted from Petra in Jordan, along with his traveling companions.

Most of the trip involved extensive briefings with leaders and regional partners, including Mohammad Shtayyeh, who is the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Romney and Murphy took time on Tuesday to update members of the media about what they learned in the region, including how Shtayyeh sees the current state of the peace process with Israel.

“He said you need to have an honest broker to make an agreement like you would hope to see work, and he felt that we have become so aligned with Israel, it’s been hard for us to play that role,” Romney said of the United States.

A fair amount of last week’s trip focused on discussions about the “deal of the century,” which is the term being used in the region for the expected framework proposal from the Trump administration that has been led by White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Both senators spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was vacationing at the time of their visit, though neither viewed that as a slight given that their trip came shortly after contentious elections.

The pair seemed to take in a multitude of regional concerns during their travels.

Murphy spoke Tuesday about concerns the senators heard in Jordan about what could be the consequences of the United States putting forward a proposal that is viewed as too unworkable, or too favorable to Israel.

“There is real worry about what the reaction on Jordanian streets will be to a peace framework that is not a true framework for discussion,” Murphy said.

Despite that, Romney said, there was no sense in the region of a potential Plan B.

“I don’t know what the alternative is other than a two-state solution,” Romney said. “No one articulated to us, anywhere in the region, an idea or a proposal for anything other than a two-state solution.”

The trip also took the two senators to Iraq, where they seemed to sense an opportunity with a new government having taken office. Romney and Murphy’s meetings there included a visit with President Barham Salih.

Murphy recalled the last night dining in Iraq, when he suggested that the 2012 Republican presidential nominee draw on his celebrity and work the room.

“My instinct was right, and our military and embassy personnel are thrilled to meet Romney and snap a photo with him,” he said. “More than a few recognize me too, including several from Connecticut. It feels great to be amongst such heroes, and I leave wishing we had more time just to walk around and express our appreciation for all these people who sacrifice so much to keep us safe.”

Senators have long been regular visitors to Iraq given the U.S. involvement in the country, but there may be new opportunities now.

For instance, the senators found the Iraqi government somewhat optimistic about landing a deal for natural gas infrastructure and other resources that could cut down on flaring, the burning off of excess natural gas.

“You say to yourself, ‘Really?’ We’re talking several billion dollars a year that could be captured that is not being captured today,” Romney said. “They gave us the impression that they are close to getting something done on that front. I certainly hope so.”

Romney said part of the problem was needing to get a better understanding of the profit motivations of U.S. energy companies.

“I was very glad to hear of the anticipated progress on contracts with private energy firms that can help them capture much more of the natural resources that they are losing today,” Murphy said. “I’m not normally in the business of advocating for U.S. oil and gas companies, but I think that they are on the verge of a very smart deal for them and for us.”

The senators also said the new government was interested in securing productive trading arrangements with a larger number of countries in the region.

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