Congressional tourists anger US diplomats gib at

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American diplomats abroad are indignant that members of Congress are continuing to take foreign trips - demanding assistance on shopping trips, sight-seeing expeditions, squash games and suchlike - while diplomats are forced to work without pay owing to the partial shutdown of the US government.

President Bill Clinton yesterday met Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, the Republican leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives, in what was expected to be an inconclusive attempt to resolve the budget battle which triggered the crisis.

The refusal of Congress to provide funds for the 1996 fiscal year to nine government departments has meant that since 16 December 280,000 government employees have stayed away from work and hundreds of thousands have not received full wages. The State Department in Washington is functioning without 75 per cent of its staff and overseas embassies have been cut by 20 per cent.

Meanwhile, according to a report in yesterday's Washington Post, 21 Republican and 10 Democrat members of congress have between them planned 25 foreign trips over the next three weeks. For example, Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, and Richard Shelby, a colleague from Alabama, departed on Thursday on a 13-day tour of Africa, Egypt and Israel in the company of their wives and three assistants.

The Post reported that Mr Specter, who recently withdrew his candidacy for the 1996 presidential election, had explained some of his travel requirements to the State Department, who conveyed them by cable to the relevant embassies. "Senator Specter is an avid squash player," the cable said. "Request matches be arranged at air-conditioned courts in each location with local opponents. Sen Specter will provide his own equipment, except balls."

The American Foreign Service Association, a union which represents State Department staff, received a letter from diplomats in Latin America outraged at the insensitivity of five members of Congress, two Republican and three Democrat, who chose to go on a 16-day tour of Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

"Frankly", the letter said, "we are disturbed by the thought that while American schoolchildren are being turned away from Smithsonian museums, national parks, monuments and memorials, some members of the US Congress are looking forward to seeing exotic attractions like Copacabana, Iguazu, Cuzco, Macchu Picchu and Otavalo - largely at the expense of the parents of the schoolchildren."

Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, sought to maximise the embarrassment of President Clinton's congressional foes. He said embassy employees had been forced to say: "Look, we can't offer to carry all the bags of the members of Congress who are travelling the way we normally would ...and we can't provide the same level of services when they want to go out shopping that we normally provide."