Iraq War, SARS Halt Trips

Posted April 9, 2003 at 6:33pm

The war in Iraq and fears of a global epidemic have not just had a chilling effect on leisure travel around the world. Many Members of Congress, who typically use long recesses to travel overseas on fact-finding trips, are deciding to stay on the home front as well this spring.

Though Members have two weeks off starting Friday, most say they have postponed scheduled Congressional delegation trips that had been scheduled for April.

“I think right now there’s a little reticence to travel abroad given the level of anti-American sentiment in many capitals,” said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who nevertheless said he plans to take a trip to Prague for a NATO gathering on Memorial Day weekend.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said he had planned to travel with ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq this weekend, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told him to call it off.

“He said it was best to postpone it … because of the fluctuating situation [in the region],” Warner said.

Warner and Levin, along with other Armed Services members, were hoping to survey the battlefield in Iraq as well as meet with the commanders of the war. Warner said he would still make the trip sometime later this year, perhaps in the summer.

“There’s no critical point at which Congress has to go. It just happened that [our trip] fell at the same time that we’re engaged in some of the most critical operations of the war,” Warner said of developments this week in which U.S. troops began to seize control of portions of Baghdad.

Several veteran lawmakers noted that there is an unusual dearth of CODELs in April. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that was to be expected while the nation is at war, especially since military aircraft typically used to transport lawmakers are scarce.

“We need all the airplanes that CODELs use to fight in the military,” he noted.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Joseph Biden (D-Del.) also decided against traveling abroad this month. He had considered going to Europe to take the temperature of U.S. allies who oppose the war in Iraq because Biden believes the Bush administration should engage nations such as France and Germany in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

“He’s not reticent to go. He just decided at this time he’d prefer not to go, and instead spend time with his family,” said a Biden aide.

The aide said Biden will likely still take the trip, possibly around the Memorial Day recess.

Though there may be dangers to traveling, not everyone has decided to sit at home.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) still plans to lead a Congressional delegation to South Korea and Japan this month, despite the deadly outbreak of a mysterious respiratory disease, known as SARS, in areas of China, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) noted with some trepidation that he would be joining Frist on the trip to discuss issues such as nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Asian economic woes.

“We’re going into SARS country, but it’s still on,” Chafee said of the trip.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) also may travel during the break. Hastert spokesman John Feehery said plans are still being finalized for a visit to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where many soldiers wounded in Iraq are transferred.

Hastert may also attempt to board a U.S. aircraft carrier that is supporting operations in Iraq, Feehery said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has not officially canceled a trip to South America in the second week of the recess, but spokesman Marshall Wittmann said the trip was still tentative.