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Proposed ban on privately funded travel meets resistance

WASHINGTON -- The 17 members of Congress who went to Dublin on an Aspen Institute-paid trip last summer got a walking tour of the city. They also spent six or seven hours each of the four days in discussions with scholars and policy makers about US relations with Europe and Russia.

It was not quite the same as the itinerary for trips arranged by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, when golf at St. Andrews's famed course in Scotland was the highlight.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, seeking cover for Republicans in a growing influence-peddling scandal, has proposed banning all such trips, whether they are intended to improve lawmakers' knowledge of an issue or their putting skills.

His idea is running into resistance, even from his second-in-command. The new House majority leader, Representative John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, defends privately funded travel as essential and suggests continuing to allow the trips if they meet House rules.

Boehner, who also discounts several other proposals for overhauling lobbying rules, has taken more than three dozen privately funded trips at home and abroad since 2000.

''We can't lock members up in a cubbyhole here in Washington and never let them see what's going on around the country and around the world," Boehner said on ''Fox News Sunday."

''Members need to be educated, they need to be kept up to speed on what's happening, and these trips, to a large extent, help educate members," he said.

Hastert's proposed changes, including restrictions on gifts to and meals for lawmakers, were to have been released last week. They were postponed, however, when several GOP members balked at some of the measures during a private meeting.

''We are now in a long-term war against terrorism," said Representative Zach Wamp, Republican of Tennessee, who is concerned about a total ban on travel. ''If we think for a second that we are going to have cooperation from other freedom-loving countries in the world by isolating ourselves, we are kidding ourselves."

Congressional rules permit lawmakers to accept payment from qualified private sponsors for necessary food, transportation, and lodging involved in trips for speaking engagements or fact-finding.

Lobbyists are not allowed to pay for such trips.

PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign spending, says that 638 members of Congress made 6,689 trips in the 2000-2005 period, receiving just under $20 million.

The top foreign destinations were Israel, Mexico, Germany, and China.

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