WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom Reed of Corning and several other Republican lawmakers faced harsh bipartisan criticism Monday for partaking in an evening of eating and drinking in Israel last summer that ended in a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee, skinny-dipping by a Kansas lawmaker and a brief FBI investigation.
Mitt Romney, soon to be the Republican presidential nominee, said in a New Hampshire television interview that the behavior of the GOP lawmakers on the trip was “reprehensible” and “another terrible mistake by individuals.” His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said the lawmakers' behavior was “unbecoming of a member of Congress.”
Meanwhile, Erick Erickson of the popular conservative blog RedState.com called on the lawmakers who took part in the swim to resign.
Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: “This looks more like a scene out of 'Animal House' than a delegation of members of Congress representing America in Israel – one of our most important security partners.”
Reed acknowledged jumping into the Sea of Galilee in shorts and a golf shirt with his wife, Jean.
Asked about Erickson's call for resignations, Reed said: “I think that's an extreme reaction,” and added: “From my perspective, we didn't see anything that was inappropriate,”
Politico, a Capitol Hill newspaper and website, reported the incident and the FBI probe, citing more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.
According to Politico, the GOP contingent of more than 20 people plunged into the Sea of Galilee, where the Bible says Jesus walked on water, after dinner at a waterfront restaurant that involved drinking.
Some members of the party jumped in the water fully clothed, while others partly stripped. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, got naked, Politico said.
“After dinner I followed some members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea, and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit,” Yoder said in a statement to Politico.
“It is my greatest honor to represent the people of Kansas in Congress, and [for] any embarrassment I have caused for my colleagues and constituents, I apologize.”
While there is nothing illegal about swimming in the Sea of Galilee, the FBI interviewed congressional staffers who were on the trip regarding the incident, Politico said.
“Looking back on it, obviously with the attention that's been brought to it and looking at it, obviously it's something I would probably not do again going forward,” Reed said.
“But in the moment – my wife and I going in the sea – it's one of those things that to me at the time wasn't extraordinary,” he added.
Reed acknowledged having wine at dinner that night, and while some sources told Politico that alcohol may have motivated some participants to jump in the water, Reed said no one in the party appeared intoxicated.
The incident took place at Decks, a waterfront restaurant in the historic town of Tiberias. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was there, as was Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
But both leaders left the party at the end of dinner, at which point some of the remaining lawmakers and staffers continued drinking, Politico said.
Other Republican lawmakers who later jumped into the Sea of Galilee – technically a lake – included Reps. Michael Grimm of Staten Island, Steve Southerland of Florida, Ben Quayle of Arizona and Jeff Denham of California.
The next morning, Cantor admonished the GOP lawmakers and staffers regarding the incident, which involved some of his own aides, Politico said.
“He expressed his concern about it, and we all discussed it and agreed that we're not going to do that again,” Reed said. “He also stressed the nature of the trip and what we were there for.”
The American Israel Educational Foundation, which is tied to the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sponsored and paid for the trip, which cost up to $10,000 per person, Politico said.
The pro-Israel group routinely sponsors such trips for U.S. lawmakers. Events on the agenda included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, and dinner with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
The trip took place Aug. 13-21, 2011; the late-night dip happened Aug. 18, 2011.
Reed questioned the timing of the controversy over the incident, noting that the Politico story was published a year after the late-night swim and “in the political season.”
The incident can do no political good to Reed or the rest of a Congress beset by low approval ratings.
Reed's Democratic opponent in the November election, Nate Shinagawa, said: “These lawmakers had the privilege of a free trip to Israel to learn about its rich history, religious traditions and present challenges, but their behavior was irresponsible and disrespectful to those who consider the Sea of Galilee a holy place.”
Erickson, of RedState.com, said the lawmakers “have embarrassed themselves, their families, their constituents and their party. They should have the decency to resign, or at least put a paper bag over their head and go away for a very long time.”