Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- John Ensign leads debate on tourism bill (9-8-2009)
Crisis managers have said the best way Republican Sen. John Ensign could rehabilitate his image after disclosing his affair with a former staff member would be to bury himself in his work.
Ensign should not be seen or heard much, they said, unless he is showing that he is working hard for his home state.
The senator returned to Washington this week from a tour of Nevada in which he repeatedly apologized for the affair with the wife of one of his best friends and top aides, and set out to do just that.
As the Senate convened for the fall session, Ensign was among the first senators on the floor, making a speech about the importance of the Nevada-friendly Travel Promotion Act.
The action was a do-over of sorts, for Ensign and the bill.
Ensign had missed a procedural vote on the legislation this summer — a vote held the day he flew back to Las Vegas to disclose his affair.
The Travel Promotion Act would charge every foreigner visiting the country $10 to fund an advertising campaign to promote the United States abroad. It has been a long-running priority of the travel industry.
The bill passed the House last year, thanks in part to the support of then-Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev. But the Bush administration was opposed to another layer of government, and the bill died.
The tourism industry tried again this year, recognizing President Barack Obama supported the bill as a senator, as did several of his top officials when they were in Congress.
The bill also has a friend in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who brought it to the floor during a lull in the Senate schedule in mid-June.
The bill passed its first hurdle 90-3 (with Ensign absent), but quickly became entangled in a leadership struggle as Republicans and Democrats quarreled over extraneous amendments.
When Reid stepped in and called for the vote, the legislation could not reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance. Only two Republicans, Ensign and a senator from tourism-heavy Florida, voted yes, and a handful of Democratic senators were absent.
Reid set up a do-over as soon as Congress returned from the August recess, knowing he had the votes for passage.
Ensign, whose absence from the earlier vote was widely noted in stories about his affair, seized the opportunity to play a role.
He talked up the bill on the Senate floor this week, reminding opponents — including much of his party’s leadership — that the money raised by the $10 visa charge would be matched by the private sector to build up the national fund.
Ensign also noted the power of advertising to attract visitors.
“One of the reasons ... I wanted to go to Australia was because they advertised,” Ensign explained, describing the Great Barrier Reef, some of the sites of Sydney and the “gorgeous beaches.”
While global travel has increased in recent years, the number of visitors to the United States has declined since the 9/11 attacks, he said.
He noted that each U.S. visitor spends an average of $4,500, which has a ripple effect throughout the economy, especially in hard-hit tourism economies such as Nevada’s.
Reid and his Republican counterpart had previously reached an agreement to allow a vote. The do-over worked: The bill was approved Wednesday 79-19. It now moves to the House.