House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday defended her bid for a large U.S. Air Force jet to take her home and back to Washington nonstop -- and the White House backed her up.
Mrs. Pelosi suggested that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld may be involved in leaking information about her request.
"It still raises the question, why would the Department of Defense not be denying this information that has been conveyed?" the California Democrat told reporters. "Why are they feeding the flames? Of course I have been a constant critic -- for nearly three years, I've called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, who still has a desk at the Department of Defense, and I guess any chance they have "
Larry Di Rita, Mr. Rumsfeld's spokesman while defense secretary, responded, "Secretary Rumsfeld's priorities while in office did not allow for time to get too involved in member travel issues, and I doubt that has changed since he left."
As her office pressed the Pentagon for a large plane, and a staunch ally, Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, called defense officials on her behalf, Mrs. Pelosi said she does not particularly want a military jet and would be happy to fly commercially.
"I don't even like having the security," Mrs. Pelosi said. "I would rather travel on the plane with my friends to get some work done. I like my freedom, but there are certain sacrifices you have to make when you are speaker of the House."
The Pentagon told Mrs. Pelosi in a letter on Wednesday that it cannot guarantee her a plane capable of flying to California nonstop -- as she requested.
White House press secretary Tony Snow defended Mrs. Pelosi against Republican criticism and labeled as "silly" press coverage of her request for a plane and the flexibility of transporting aides, lawmakers and family members. President Bush has reached out to Mrs. Pelosi in a bid to reach agreement on major legislation, such as immigration reform.
The Washington Times first reported last week on Mrs. Pelosi's request, saying she wanted a larger plane and more passengers than afforded her predecessor, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. The Air Force allotted Mr. Hastert a small, 12-seat commuter jet to ferry him to his Illinois district.
Mrs. Pelosi said, "I'm not saying that I am being discriminated against because I am a woman, I'm just saying as the first woman speaker, I have no intention of having less respect for the office I hold than all of the other speakers that have come before me."
At the White House, Mr. Snow said, "This is a silly story, and I think it's been unfair to the speaker."
Mr. Snow's defense put him at odds with the Republican Party, and also Republicans on Capitol Hill who have blasted Mrs. Pelosi for demanding a perk reserved for the president and vice president and a few Cabinet members.
Mrs. Pelosi also asked the Air Force to fly her and her colleagues to a Democratic Party retreat in Williamsburg, where Mr. Bush appeared. The Air Force declined the request, saying it was not allowed under Defense Department directives.
Mrs. Pelosi stayed quiet after The Times first reported the story. But by Tuesday, the criticism grew intense and she began making TV appearances to defend her request.
Asked later in the day if the White House differed with its own party, Mr. Snow said:
"And I'll just repeat our position, which is as speaker of the House, she is entitled to military transport and that the the proper arrangements are being made between the sergeant of arms office in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Department of Defense. We think it's appropriate, and so I -- again, I think this is much ado about not a whole lot. It is important for the speaker to have this kind of protection and travel. It was certainly appropriate for Speaker Hastert. And so we trust that all sides will get this worked out."
Republicans did not see it that way.
Members quickly drafted an amendment to an environmental bill on the House floor, forcing Democrats to debate Mrs. Pelosi and military planes for two hours.
"The Congress also finds that in order to lessen United States dependence on foreign sources of petroleum, and decrease demand for petroleum in aircraft, such as passenger planes with 42 business-class seats capable of transcontinental flights, the nation must diversify its fuel supply for aircraft to include domestically produced alternative fuels," says the amendment, a clear reference to the large jet requested by Mrs. Pelosi's office.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the Defense Department sent a letter to Mrs. Pelosi that limits her choice of aircraft to commuter-sized planes that would have to be refueled. The letter said the Pentagon could not guarantee access to larger jets, and it stated rules for carrying family members and lawmakers.
The 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force base operates three jets that can make the nonstop flight year-round: the C-32 (Boeing 757); a C-40 (Boeing 737) and the C-20, a Gulfstream jet.
Mr. Murtha is playing hardball.
"I don't need to pressure them," he told reporters, when asked about his calls to the Pentagon. "I just tell them what they need to do."
Mr. Murtha warned the Pentagon against leaking information that makes Mrs. Pelosi look bad.
"They're making a mistake when they leak it because she decides on allocations for them," he said, referring to the Pentagon budget.
Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded:
"It is irresponsible and reckless for Congressman Murtha to use funding needed for the protection of our country and for our men and women in uniform as leverage in order for Nancy Pelosi to travel from coast to coast like a movie star. We are a country at war, and I think it is time for the Democrat majority to get their priorities straight."
In a statement yesterday, House Sergeant at Arms Wilson Livingood assumed responsibility for the decision to request a larger plane for Mrs. Pelosi.
"The fact that Speaker Pelosi lives in California compelled me to request an aircraft that is capable of making nonstop flights for security reasons, unless such an aircraft is unavailable," he said. "Such an aircraft will ensure communications capabilities and also enhance security."
He also said he regrets "that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue."