Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has demonstrated a willingness to defy his own party on issues such as immigration and relations with Cuba, will join President Obama on a trip to Africa later this week.
Flake, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs, confirmed in an interview Tuesday that the White House had invited him to travel with the president to Kenya and Ethiopia. But he emphasized that he wasn’t expecting any special treatment.
“I am coming along,” he said. “I don’t know which plane I will be on, whether I’ll be in the luggage compartment or on some ancillary plane.”
The president rarely takes lawmakers along for foreign trips, though he did invite Democratic Reps. Gerald Connolly, (Va.), Jim Himes, (Conn.), Eddie Bernice Johnson, (Tex.) and Mike Quigley, (Ill.) aboard Air Force One for his trip to attend the Group of Seven summit in Germany in June just before a critical trade vote in the House.
Flake — who served as a Mormon missionary in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, and lived in Namibia in the late 80s while working as the executive director of the Foundation for Democracy — said it made sense that the administration would extend the invitation because he has worked on Africa policy since joining the Senate.
“It tends to be less partisan than a lot of the foreign policy issues,” he said.
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The president’s trip, which begins Thursday and ends Wednesday, July 29, will cover a range of issues including U.S. business investment on the continent, efforts to counter Islamic extremists there and aid programs aimed at expanding Africa’s power sector. Roughly 600 million Africans lack access to reliable electricity.
Flake supports the administration’s Power Africa program, under which the federal government has joined with private firms and international institutions to pledge $26 billion in electricity investment on the continent.
“The biggest need that Africa has is power, he said. “They need stable, cheaper power than they have now.”
Flake said he hopes to pass legislation authorizing the program so it can last beyond the administration, but said he and other Republicans remain concerned the White House is so focused on expanding renewable power it is blocking support for fossil fuels investment in Africa.
“We can’t assume that these countries have skipped the Industrial Revolution, and are where we are,” he said. “We need to cut them some slack, in terms of where they’re expected to be.”
Flake’s decision to travel with the president — especially to Kenya, the home of Obama’s father and the country where some conservatives insist the president was born — might inflame conservatives. But the senator said he’s become accustomed to such criticism.
“Who knows, probably some of the same groups I get flak from for working with the president on Cuba and immigration” will attack me, Flake said.