Washington When Sen. Sam Brownback flew to San Antonio last year for religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's 75th birthday party, a conservative advocacy group picked up the $10,000 tab for a chartered plane and helicopter flight.
In all, the Kansas Republican took 10 privately funded trips in 2005 worth more than $21,400, a review of Senate records found.
Brownback's travels topped all members of the Kansas delegation in both number and cost of the trips. The state's senior senator, Republican Pat Roberts, was second with two trips costing $9,517.
Privately funded travel could be banned or limited under legislation being considered in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which involved millions of dollars from Abramoff's clients going to win friends and buy influence on Capitol Hill.
Most of Brownback's trips were funded by nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Pro Life Legal Defense Fund, National Right to Life Committee and Center for Moral Clarity. All were speaking engagements, as Brownback tried to boost his national image ahead of a possible presidential bid.
"On all of those trips, I felt like they were legitimate functions," Brownback said in an interview. "I was asked to speak at each of them, and my request was just to get me there and back."
The hefty cost of traveling to Robertson's party - by far Brownback's most expensive trip - was unexpected, Brownback said. The trip's sponsor, the American Center for Law and Justice, only informed his office afterward.
Travel, gifts and meals purchased by outside interests are coming under increasing scrutiny this year as lawmakers work to reform lobbying rules and prevent influence peddling.
The Senate is considering a bill that would ban all gifts and meals from lobbyists and require the Senate ethics committee to pre-approve privately funded travel. Earlier this week, the Senate rejected a Democratic alternative that would have banned almost all travel sponsored by private groups.
Rather than an outright ban on privately sponsored travel, Brownback said he favored stricter rules for clearing and publicizing the trips.
"More disclosure and some sort of advance approval process is the best type of proposal that I've seen thus far," Brownback said. "And maybe real-time disclosure, where it's posted within 24 hours."
Brownback pointed to a trip last November to speak at a global health summit in New York. Without the sponsor, Time magazine, paying the costs, Brownback said he would not have been able to attend.
Brownback also relied on private money to help him court supporters for his potential presidential campaign. In April, he traveled to Manchester, N.H. - site of the first-in-the nation presidential primary - to receive an award from a family advocacy group. The Pro Life Legal Defense Fund paid the $640 cost.
In November, he delivered a speech in Burbank, Calif. More than $2,300 in travel and lodging expenses was paid by the Korean American Church Foundation.
Roberts said he always has supported greater transparency and enhanced disclosure of fundraising and lobbying practices.
"I am confident that we can find a good blend of reforms so that members of Congress and their staff can adequately represent their constituencies and serve in the best interests of the American people," Roberts said.
Roberts took two four-day trips with his wife last year: a conference in Orlando, paid for by the International Dairy Foods Association, and a panel meeting in Boca Raton, paid for by the Chicago Board of Trade. He spoke on agricultural issues at both.
Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt, of Goddard, took two privately funded trips to attend a conference in Baltimore and a congressional retreat in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Tiahrt spokesman Chuck Knapp said the congressman "believes there is benefit in allowing such travel, but taxpayers should not be burdened with the cost if there are reasonable and appropriately disclosed alternate funding opportunities."
Still, Tiahrt favors more transparency in the process through more immediate electronic filing and public access to costs and other details, Knapp said.
The state's lone Democrat, Rep. Dennis Moore, of Lenexa, also said he is reluctant to support an outright ban on privately funded travel because some trips are useful for educating members of Congress.
Moore also took only two trips last year. One was paid for by a nonprofit to tour Hurricane Katrina damages in New Orleans. During a second trip to Miami, which was funded by the Securities Industry Association, he delivered a speech and attended seminars.
"Can they be abused?" Moore said. "Absolutely. And those should be stopped. But I hesitate to eliminate all private travel because you're eliminating some of the trips that really might be worthwhile to members of Congress."
Rep. Jim Ryun, a Lawrence Republican, took just one privately funded trip to St. Louis, where he spoke at an evening church service.
Rep. Jerry Moran, Republican from Hays, took no privately funded trips last year.