updated 9/29/2006 10:14:00 AM ET 2006-09-29T14:14:00

Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who has gotten into hot water before for comments seen as disparaging various groups, joshingly remarked Thursday on the number of Italian-Americans at the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The Montana senator, facing a tough re-election fight against Democrat Jon Tester, was heading an aviation subcommittee hearing of the Commerce Committee when two FAA officials, Michael Cirillo and Nicholas Sabatini, introduced themselves as witnesses.

"I'm wondering if that's all they're hiring," Burns said of the federal agency.

Burns campaign spokesman Jason Klindt said the senator was just kidding around with the two Italian-Americans.

"Lighten up. Robin Williams does an entire standup act on Scotsmen, and Conrad doesn't take offense to that," Klindt said of Burns, who is of Scottish-American descent. "Political correctness has run amok. I mean everyone just needs to lighten up."

Burns, 71, has made several gaffes during his campaign. Last month, he said the United States is up against a faceless enemy of terrorists who "drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night."

He drew criticism in June for calling his house painter a "nice little Guatemalan man."

Burns also had to apologize after confronting members of a firefighting team at the Billings, Mont., airport and telling them they had done a "piss-poor job," according to a state report. 2006 key races

The Hotshot crew had traveled 2,000 miles from Staunton, Va., to help dig fire lines for about a week around a 143-square-mile wildfire east of Billings.

"It sounds like the only group that Burns has yet to offend is out-of-work auctioneers from Missouri," said Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Tester, Burns' opponent in the Senate race.

Also during Thursday's hearing, Burns asked witness Matt Andersson, senior aviation consultant for CRA International, about the spelling of his name. Andersson said it's the Swedish spelling.

"Oh, ja," Burns replied in a mock Swedish accent.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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