Back home, he's one of the 535 most powerful lawmakers in America, but last week, on the holiest week in Islam's holiest city, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison was just one among the estimated 3 million travelers making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ellison, D-Minn., and the first Muslim elected to Congress, also became the first sitting member to make the hajj, the journey that all able-bodied Muslims are obligated to make once in their lifetime.

Ellison had been planning the weeklong pilgrimage since a trip to Saudi Arabia almost a year ago, said his spokesman, Rick Jauert, and hadn't expected the lame-duck session and contentious battle taking shape in Congress over whether to provide financial aid to U.S. carmakers.

"The plans were made not anticipating there would be a lame-duck session at all, and if there was, it wouldn't be this late," Jauert said. "He had let the speaker and majority leader know that he was going, and they were OK with that. If they knew they were going to bring up something on which his vote was essential, he probably wouldn't have gone."

Jauert said Ellison was accompanied by fellow members of his Minneapolis mosque, although his wife, a Catholic, and his two sons stayed home. "It was a personal trip, a pilgrimage," Jauert said, noting that Ellison paid for the journey himself.