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Travel costs jump on Kerry’s panel

Democrats set annual record for world trips

By Farah Stockman and Stephanie Vallejo
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Democrats and their staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have spent more on international travel in 2009 than they have in any other year, reflecting a greater focus on up-close tours and investigations in foreign countries by its new chairman, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, according to a Globe analysis of expense reports filed in Congress.

From January through September, Kerry, his fellow Democratic senators, and their staff spent $746,000 on more than 75 trips to more than 50 countries. That is double the number of trips and nearly three times the costs accumulated by their Republican colleagues on the committee during the same period. The totals for the first three quarters of this year under Kerry are also more than Democrats traveled or spent during all of 2008.

The trips have included priority foreign policy destinations, such as Afghanistan and Israel, but also less prominent places such as Iceland, Laos, and Moldova.

Kerry’s staff says the pace of travel is proof that an energetic new chairman who took the helm in January is eager for firsthand information on the world’s most contentious problems.

“You can’t evaluate the effectiveness of opium poppy eradication in southern Afghanistan or investigate alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka - both recent trips by committee staff - from a desk in Washington,’’ said Kerry’s spokesman, Frederick Jones. “This is a Democratic administration pushing a Democratic foreign policy, based on engagement, so it makes sense that there would be more Democratic travel.’’

But there are signs that the Democrats’s foreign trips have become a source of tension on the committee, which has a long-held reputation for bipartisan collegiality.

In past years, Republicans and Democrats have typically spent roughly equal amounts on trips, often traveling together to present a united front overseas. But this year, the eight Republicans have not sought to travel nearly as frequently as the 11 Democrats, and the two parties have had far less cooperation.

For instance, earlier this year, Republican staff director Kenneth A. Myers Jr. stopped signing off on the travel requests of Democrats. Under the rules of the committee, the ranking minority member must approve travel, but in practice, the chairman of the committee has final say.

Myers was not intending to make any political statement with his decision, said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the committee.

“There were a lot of new people that came in with the new chairman,’’ Fisher said. “It was unclear who they were and what they did exactly. It was a very internal matter. Ken felt he was not acquainted with all the people and the trips that they were conducting.’’

Partisan wrangling over travel on the committee came into public view two months ago, when Kerry issued a rare rejection to a travel request by GOP Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina - a move that Republicans decried as an unprecedented use of the chairman’s powers.

Kerry refused to approve the trip to Honduras because DeMint was blocking two diplomatic appointments. DeMint found alternative funding for his trip, and Republicans say Kerry has not blocked any other trips.

Still, the incident suggests a break from the committee’s past bipartisan cooperation.

“It’s a terrible trend,’’ said Graeme Bannerman, a former staff director for Lugar, who blamed the development on US politics in general, not Kerry himself. “It is symbolic of the partisanship that is taking over the Hill. It’s very sad indeed.’’

As recently as last year, under the previous committee chairman, Joseph Biden of Delaware, foreign trips would not go forward without Myers’s approval, said a former Biden staff member.

If Myers raised questions about the value of a trip, Biden’s staff director, Antony Blinken, would work to address his concerns, said the former staffer, who was not authorized to speak about committee procedures and requested anonymity.

Jones said Kerry’s staff did not object to Myers’s decision to stop signing Democratic travel requests and described the requirement of Myers’s signature as an outdated practice. Still, since a Globe inquiry on the subject, Myers has begun to sign off again, because the requirement is written into the committee’s rules, Jones said.

The increased Democratic travel reflects Kerry’s ambitious portfolio, which now includes global warming, Afghanistan, and issues related to international finance.

Kerry, whose name is often mentioned as a possible future secretary of state, has also hired at least seven additional staff members, including two traveling investigators.

Jones said the travel was already paying off, citing Kerry’s successful effort to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election, as well as Virginia Democrat Jim Webb’s trip to Burma, which helped release an imprisoned American citizen.

Decades ago, the committee’s travel was far more restricted and most trips included members of both parties, making the amount spent on travel fairly equal, according to interviews.

When Lugar first became chairman in the mid-1980s, he mandated that any staff member who wanted to travel abroad had to invite a staff member of the other party, according to Jeffrey Bergner, Lugar’s staff director at the time.

“There were a number of times the Democratic staff came to me and said they wanted to go somewhere, to Asia or Africa, and they wanted to go on their own, but we would say that it would be a bipartisan staff delegation or they wouldn’t go at all,’’ said Bergner, who said the policy was designed to prevent one-sided committee reports.

Later, the rules were relaxed, but bipartisan trips were still the norm, said Bannerman, who was staff director until 1987.

“When you end up going out there together, you get the same briefing. You bond in ways that you can’t at other times,’’ said Bannerman, who became so close to his Democratic counterpart that they still play tennis together today.

In the 1990s, when Jesse Helms, the iconoclastic North Carolina Republican, took charge of the committee, Republicans and Democrats consulted closely and traveled together more often than not, said Edwin Hall, Biden’s staff director in 2001.

“Even though there were significant differences between Senator Helms and Biden on some policy issues, we made a big effort to run the committee together,’’ Hall said.

Both Jones and Fisher described the current relationship between Republicans and Democrats on the committee as friendly and cooperative.

“The senator has gotten wonderful cooperation from his Republican colleagues,’’ Jones said. “In a highly partisan town at a highly partisan time, clearly there are philosophical differences, but I don’t think they are any more extreme than they would be under any chairman.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.