Thursday, February 1, 2007

The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pressing the Bush administration for routine access to military aircraft for domestic flights, such as trips back to her San Francisco district, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The sources, who include those in Congress and in the administration, said the Democrat is seeking regular military flights not only for herself and her staff, but also for relatives and for other members of the California delegation. A knowledgeable source called the request “carte blanche for an aircraft any time.”

“They are pressing the point of her succession and that the [Department of Defense] needs to play ball with the speaker’s needs,” one source said. The request originally went to the Pentagon, which then asked the White House to weigh in.

Mrs. Pelosi’s request is not new for a speaker, who is second-in-line in presidential succession. A defense source said the speaker’s regular access to a military plane began after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, who was speaker at the time, started using U.S. Air Force planes for domestic travel to and from his district for security reasons. A former Hastert aide said the congressman did not use military planes for political trips or regularly transport his family.

The defense source said Mr. Hastert requested a plane with good communications so he could conduct legislative business. The military flights increased to the point the speaker used a military plane for many, if not all, flights to his Illinois district, the former aide said.

Sources said Mrs. Pelosi’s request goes beyond what Mr. Hastert received. The speaker’s legal counsel is spearheading the talks.

An aide to Mrs. Pelosi, who asked not to be named, confirmed yesterday that discussions are ongoing with the administration. “It would be done for security reasons,” said the aide, adding that the speaker has used military aircraft for at least one trip back to San Francisco.

The aide asserted that the administration was using a Washington Times reporter, in effect, to negotiate with the speaker’s office by leaking information about Mrs. Pelosi’s request. Asked if the speaker was seeking increased access to military planes, the aide took the question, but did not call back.

A Pentagon spokesman referred questions to Mrs. Pelosi’s office. A White House spokeswoman said last night she had no information on the request.

The rules for congressional travel on military aircraft are contained in Defense Department Directive 4515.12.

Congressional access to military passenger jets is generally restricted to official trips abroad, or for domestic flights to military bases or events to which the Pentagon invited the lawmaker. Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. changed the procedure in the case of the speaker.

U.S. Air Force travel for VIPs such as members of Congress is first-rate. The planes are staffed with stewards who serve meals and tend an open bar. Communications suites allow members to conduct business while traveling.

Such flights are one of Congress’ cherished perquisites, providing lawmakers a chance to visit foreign lands at government expense. Official duties are often mixed with sightseeing and fine dining.

But trips to war zones are not junkets. Since the September 11 attacks, the Air Force has flown hundreds of congressional delegations, or “co-dels,” to various war theaters. Mrs. Pelosi just completed a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Upon her return, she repeated her demand that President Bush not send more troops to Iraq.

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