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Standoff alters lawmakers' plans for trips to China

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing the Beijing-Washington standoff involving a Navy plane, three congressional trips to China have been canceled or are close to it.

A fourth trip, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, is still up in the air.

An aide to Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said Thursday the lawmaker wouldn't lead a trip to China if 24 U.S. crew members remain detained there.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said in a statement she would also cancel her planned trip, unless the crew members -- who are based in her home state -- are released.

Later, an aide to Rep. David Dreier, R-California, who had been scheduled to lead another trip to Asia, said the itinerary would no longer include stops in mainland China.

Another senator, Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, postponed his own plans for a trip.

Gramm, according to the aide, will still lead a delegation of four senators on a trip to South Korea. An aide said the delegation would stop in China if the crew members are released.

"The senator feels it wouldn't be appropriate to be there while the Americans are being held," the aide said.

Nickles announced Wednesday night that he was postponing a trip to China that he was to take with the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration has not discouraged lawmakers from traveling to China.

"The White House is not objecting to any trips that lawmakers have to China," he said.

Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman, offered similar comments. "I would say, at this point, we have not suggested that they not go," he said.

Gramm's trip includes Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, Robert Bennett, R-Utah and Michael Crapo, R-Idaho. All are members of the Senate Banking Committee. They are scheduled to board a military plane Saturday. The focus of the trip is trade issues.

"We're on hold," Bennett said. "That is, we will go to Asia. The question is, when we get there, will we include China as one of our stops ... If the Americans are not released by the time we're in Korea, we will not go to China. We will make other plans and come home early."

Organizers of the Aspen Institute trip, which is slated to include nine senators and 13 representatives, said they will make a decision within the next 48 hours about whether to proceed.

An aide to one senator scheduled to be on that trip said the State Department and the National Security Council have advised lawmakers to go ahead with their plans.

"The theory is that more contact is better than less if we want to get our servicemen home," the aide said.

On Capitol Hill, however, some have concerns about the appearance of congressional delegations visiting China at a sensitive time.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, "expressed concerns" Wednesday about the "appropriateness" of a trade trip sponsored by Drier.

"The speaker has made it known that you want to be careful on those things," Hastert spokesman John Feehery said. He said the speaker approved the trip before the recent diplomatic flare-up between the United States and China.

The itinerary for that Dreier trip is in flux, but it is scheduled begin Saturday. The trip is supposed to focus on Internet commerce, high technology and trade. The group will visit other Asian countries and will include a stop in Hong Kong.

In another development, the House Small Business Committee canceled a hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday that would have examined why parts of American service uniforms are made in other countries. The Pentagon also postponed a briefing about its review of a procurement contract with China and other nations to manufacture Army berets.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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