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Robert M. Gates, who retired this year, maintained a remote lakeside home in Washington state, which he visited several times a year but not most weekends. Donald H. Rumsfeld, who held the job before Mr. Gates, had three homes — one in Taos, N.M., one in Illinois and another in St. Michaels on Maryland’s Eastern Shore - all equipped with secure communication equipment and additional security measures. He spent most of his weekends or breaks in Washington, D.C., or at his St. Michaels escape, according to knowledgeable GOP aides.

David H. Petraeus, who replaced Mr. Panetta as CIA director, has just one home, in the D.C. area.

At least one other member of the president’s Cabinet, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, spends most of his weekends commuting outside Washington, but he does so on his own dime and uses commercial aircraft. Mr. Geithner and his family moved to New York in August, and he travels back most weekends, his spokesman said.

Mr. Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are required to use government aircraft even for personal travel.

The situation is less clear for other Cabinet secretaries. The secretaries use the fleet of government jets when traveling overseas when security precautions require it, but they also use the aircraft when the demands of the job force them to work during flights.

Cabinet secretaries are tight-lipped about how often they have turned to this exception and whether it involves any personal travel. Spokesmen for Labor Department Secretary Hilda L. Solis, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declined to comment about their bosses’ personal travel other than to say that they strictly adhere to federal reimbursement laws. The State Department and other agencies did not respond to inquiries.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill generally gave high marks to Mr. Panetta and were reluctant to criticize him, but several said the arrangement is questionable.

“It’s not something I would do if I were defense secretary, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it,” said Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and a strong advocate for cutting waste and abuse in government, sold a private plane this year after a series of reports that she had billed taxpayers for a political trip around Missouri and had failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on the aircraft.

When asked about Mr. Panetta’s frequent trips to California, Mrs. McCaskill first said she didn’t think the president’s or defense secretary’s travel was the best place to look for government savings. After learning about Mr. Panetta’s 14 trips to Monterey since July, she reconsidered.

“This is something I think the secretary should speak to in light of the cuts we are going to have to do everywhere,” she said.