The Bush administration has agreed to provide House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with regular access to an Air Force passenger jet, but the two sides are negotiating whether she will get the big aircraft she wants and who she may take as passengers, according to congressional and administration sources.
A congressional source said that Rep. John P. Murtha, chairman of House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, which controls the Pentagon’s spending, has telephoned administration officials to urge them to give the speaker what she wants.
The congressional source said Pentagon officials complained that Mr. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, is accusing them of sexism for not immediately heeding her request.
Megan E. Grote, Mr. Murtha’s press secretary, said, “Mr. Murtha absolutely never said anything about being ‘sexist.’ We have no further comment.”
Meanwhile, Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida said Mrs. Pelosi’s request represents “an arrogance of office that just defies common sense” and called it “a major deviation from the previous speaker.”
Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri called it a “flying Lincoln Bedroom,” and Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican, labeled the speaker’s plane “Pelosi One.”
“This is a bullet point to a larger value — Pelosi’s abuse of power continues,” Mr. McHenry said yesterday. “It began when the speaker denied minority rights to Republicans, continued with her ‘TunaGate’ scandal, and now she’s exploiting America’s armed forces and taxpayers for her own personal convenience.”
“TunaGate” was a reference to Democrats exempting American Samoa from legislation to increase the minimum wage. Star-Kist Tuna, whose parent company Del Monte Corp. is based in Mrs. Pelosi’s district, had lobbied against the wage increase.
An aide to Mrs. Pelosi, who is arguing she needs the jets for security reasons, yesterday referred questions to the Air Force, which is studying the California Democrat’s request along with lawyers at the Pentagon and at the White House. “A lot of people are working this,” an Air Force source said.
The congressional source said government lawyers are trying to reconcile Mrs. Pelosi’s request with Defense Department policy and congressional travel rules.
The Washington Times first reported last week that Mrs. Pelosi’s staff was pressing the administration for access to Air Force aircraft. Sources said the request went beyond what was offered to former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.
Mr. Hastert used an Air Force commuter-type jet to travel to and from his district. Mr. Hastert gained the access for security reasons after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Previously, the House speaker, who is second in the line of succession to the presidency, used commercial flights for such trips.
Mrs. Pelosi wants a larger aircraft that can fly to her home district of San Francisco nonstop. She also wants to be able to ferry other members of the congressional delegation, family members and her staff.
The speaker’s request is being handled by her chief counsel, Bernard Raimo, a veteran Democratic lawyer on Capitol Hill.
“Who she can take is being worked out, outside the Air Force,” said Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.
He said the Air Force is studying what types of planes are available for long, cross-country flights. Currently, three planes assigned to the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base can make such nonstop flights year-round — the C-32, C-40B and C-37.
Such VIP planes are in high demand.
“She’s effectively taking a bird out of the fleet,” said a defense source. “It will most directly impact the House, because they’re the heavy users of the large aircraft. Congress looks at that Andrews fleet as their Hertz rent-a-car.”
The congressional source said the speaker’s office requested an Air Force plane to take her to a weekend Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, but the Pentagon declined.
The source said Mr. Hastert on one occasion used an Air Force plane for such an event. The Air Force later determined it was a mistake, and such flights were not repeated.
The source said the Pentagon will likely give in to Mrs. Pelosi’s requests for a large plane and travel entourage, given her and Mr. Murtha’s power over defense spending.
Mr. Raimo argues that Mrs. Pelosi needs a military aircraft, as opposed to commercial flights, for security reasons.
The defense source, who asked not to be named, termed her request “carte blanche,” saying she wanted a plane that could carry an entourage just like President Bush, who flies on Air Force One, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who also always flies on military planes.
c Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.