WASHINGTON—— Last Memorial Day, Sen. Dick Durbin traveled to a conference at a luxury beach resort on Tunisia's Mediterranean coast.
The Democratic senator and his wife, Loretta, stayed at The Residence Tunis, which is part of the exclusive "Leading Hotels of the World" group and has a spa and Robert Trent Jones II golf course.
House Democrat Jan Schakowsky took her husband, political consultant Robert Creamer, to the same conference, which examined political Islam and policy challenges for Congress. The costs: $14,953.
Neither couple had to dig into their wallets. The Aspen Institute Congressional Program, which has held educational programs for members of Congress in places including Paris, Venice, Rome and Florence paid the bills.
A Tribune review of overseas travel during 2009 and 2010 by the 16 Chicago-area lawmakers then serving in Congress found Durbin, the Senate's assistant majority leader, was the most frequent flier. He took in 14 countries, all but Tunisia at taxpayer expense.
Schakowsky traveled to 10 countries, putting her in second place. Then-Sen. Roland Burris visited eight countries in Europe, Africa and Asia while in the Senate for less than two years. That put him in third place.
Altogether, Chicago-area members of Congress made 46 trips and visited 43 foreign countries; some places were visited by multiple lawmakers. Their destinations? As far away the Arctic, East Africa and Inner Mongolia.
Taxpayers paid for a majority of the trips, a reflection of rules dating to 2007 that put strict limits on which outside entities may pay for lawmakers' sojourns. The restrictions were triggered by a scandal involving lawmakers who golfed in Scotland on lobbyist-paid outings, which are now banned.
Outside entities, though, underwrote some overseas travel by the Illinoisans. The Aspen Foundation financed six trips, equal to the number funded by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby.
Lawmakers vigorously defend their globe-trotting, even when it takes place during times the Senate calls "state work periods" and the House calls "district work periods" — once known as recesses.
Some outsiders agree that overseas trips are instrumental to foreign-policy decisions in a shrinking world. But others regard the trips as a perk, particularly since their spouses often go along, and at minimal cost.
"An important part of my job is to understand the world we live in," Durbin said, explaining that lawmakers cannot make vital decisions "in an armchair watching television."
Durbin's stops included Svalbard, a pristine Arctic wilderness roughly halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. He went with several lawmakers after international meetings in Oslo. One aim was to drop off seeds from the U.S. Agriculture Department at a global seed vault intended to withstand wars and natural disasters. He said the stop let him see the effects of global warming.
The Tribune also found:
•House Democrat Dan Lipinski, of Western Springs, made a winter trip in 2009 that featured a tour of the Panama Canal. Taxpayers paid $1,728, not including the cost of military air transportation for him and his wife, who came along. The trip also took in Brazil and Argentina. He sits on the Transportation Committee.
•House Democrat Danny Davis, of Chicago, ventured to China's Inner Mongolia region in 2009 when a man Davis described as a friend opened a plant there. The firm paid $13,996.
•House Democrat Luis Gutierrez, of Chicago, gave speeches in 2009 and 2010 in Puerto Rico, where he has a second home. Private sponsors picked up the tab, though on the second trip he and his wife paid half their airfare since they went for three days at personal expense. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was included in the review.
•House Democrat Bobby Rush, of Chicago, went to Haiti and Cuba on the taxpayers' dime. But his stated plans to go to Liberia, Ghana, Angola and South Africa in 2009 never got off the ground. A spokeswoman declined to say why he changed his plans.