Politics & Government

Biden will visit Asia hot spots before Jan. 20 inauguration

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday he and three other senators will join Vice President-elect Joe Biden this week on a trip to Southwest Asia that will effectively serve as the Obama administration's first foray into volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Officially, Biden will travel as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but foreign leaders will greet him as an emissary of President-elect Barack Obama on a trip to such a key region so close to the Jan. 20 inauguration.

"Afghanistan is in a stalemate situation," Graham told reporters. "I hope we can break out of it by having new troops and really regain a lost moment in Afghanistan."

On the domestic front, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, praised Obama's decision to devote 40 percent of his forthcoming economic-stimulus plan — about $300 billion — to tax cuts.

"Most Republicans are surprised and, quite frankly, pleased that 40 percent of the proposed package is going to be tax cuts," Graham said.

Biden, a Delaware Democrat, invited Graham on the trip to the Southwest Asia hot spots, along with Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Afghanistan has endured increased violence in recent months. Tension has risen between Pakistan and India after terrorist attacks over four days in late November left 173 people dead in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.

Graham doesn't serve on the foreign relations panel, while Collins and seven other Republicans have more seniority on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Despite his relatively junior status, Graham's inclusion on the trip ahead of more senior senators indicates his friendship with Biden, as well as his past bipartisan work on immigration, judges and other controversial issues.

Biden's invitation to Graham also reflects his unique perspective as an Air Force Reserve colonel and lawyer who's served five active-duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Graham returned last month from a weeklong stint helping U.S. and Afghani military lawyers in the war-torn country.

"I'm trying to be a senator who can reach across party lines in a fashion to maintain my fiscal and social conservatism while being a problem-solver," Graham said.

Addressing a separate flashpoint, Graham defended Israel's military offensive against Hamas leaders and arms caches in the Gaza Strip.

"I completely support Israel's decision to launch military attacks into Gaza both by air and land," Graham said. "I do not blame Israel at all. All of the blame falls on Hamas. There are plenty of problems in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict where Israel could do better, but this actual military conflict was brought on by Hamas using the Gaza Strip as a launching pad for (rocket) attacks against Israel."

All eight incumbent lawmakers from South Carolina were sworn into office Tuesday for the start of the 111th Congress.

House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, delivered a reflection at the Bipartisan Interfaith Prayer Service at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church.

"Today, we begin a new chapter in the history of our great nation," Clyburn said. "For most Americans, this is a time of great hope, but for many it is a time of immense fear and insecurity," Clyburn said.

Rep. Joe Wilson, a Lexington Republican, introduced a bill to provide early-retirement benefits to National Guard and Reserve troops.

"Having assumed a more active-duty role, Guard and Reserve members deserve to have retirement benefits that reflect the new sacrifices they have made," Wilson said.

Wilson served three decades as a military lawyer in the Army Reserves and National Guard, and his four sons have all performed military service.