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Pelosi Strikes Back at Plane Critics

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) struck back at her Republican foes who continued to blast her Thursday on the use of military transport to travel regularly back to her California district.

Pelosi released a rare statement from House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood on Thursday afternoon in which he took responsibility for requesting an aircraft that would enable the Speaker to fly coast-to-coast without stopping and expressed “regret” that the issue was being used for political purposes.

“In a post-9/11 threat environment, it is reasonable and prudent to provide military aircraft to the Speaker for official travel between Washington and her district,” Livingood said. “The fact that Speaker Pelosi lives in California compelled me to request an aircraft that is capable of making nonstop flights for security purposes, unless such an aircraft is unavailable.”

“I made the recommendation to use military aircraft based upon the need to provide necessary levels of security for ranking national leaders, such as the Speaker,” Livingood added. “I regret that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue.”

At the same time, Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.), who lobbied the Pentagon for a larger plane, announced that he planned to hold hearings on the use of military aircraft for executive branch and Congressional travel over the past two fiscal years. Murtha predicted that despite the flap, Pelosi would end up with a plane capable of making the coast-to-coast trip.

“I would predict she would” get a larger plane, he said Thursday. “I’m seldom wrong on these kinds of things.”

Meanwhile, Republicans continued to have a political field day with the Speaker’s travel arrangements, expounding on the issue for much of Thursday afternoon on the House floor. In a direct jab at Pelosi, an amendment authored by House Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) passed overwhelmingly, 385-23. The amendment called on the nation to “diversify its fuel supply” for passenger planes, especially those with “42 business class seats capable of transcontinental flights.”

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill called the move a “ridiculous distraction from the real issues.”

“It just shows just how desperate and devoid of ideas the minority party has become,” he said.

After remaining relatively mum on the burgeoning public relations disaster, Pelosi addressed the issue publicly on Thursday. The new Speaker told reporters that she would be “happy” to fly commercially, but that the Sergeant-at-Arms had requested that she not do so for security reasons.

“I have never asked for any larger plane. I have said that I am happy to ride commercial if the plane they have doesn’t go coast-to-coast,” Pelosi said. “This is a myth that [the Republicans] are talking about on the floor. They have nothing to say to the American people about the war, the economy, global warming and the rest. So they have this game they’re playing.”

But Pelosi questioned the motives behind the “misinformation” flowing from the Pentagon on the issue, while pointedly noting that President Bush was “insistent” that she be provided a certain level of security.

And White House spokesman Tony Snow bolstered that view Thursday, saying of the plane controversy, “This is a silly story and I think it’s been unfair to the Speaker.”

Unnamed administration sources and Congressional Republicans have pounced on the issue of how Pelosi will travel between Washington, D.C., and her home district. They say the new Speaker has demanded a luxury aircraft used only by the vice president and first lady, top Cabinet officials and generals. But Pelosi insists she has not requested a specific plane, but has been told by the Sergeant-at-Arms and Air Force that it would be safer and more efficient for her to travel nonstop to California from Washington.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the policy was changed so that then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) would be granted military transport to his Illinois district for official business.

While Republicans claim Pelosi is asking for more than what Hastert was given, the problem actually lies in aircraft availability. The fleet used is from the 89th Airlift Wing located at Andrews Air Force Base and includes the small, Lear-type jet used by Hastert to fly to Illinois, as well as two Gulfstream jets, a C-20 and C-37, which could potentially make it nonstop to California under the right weather and weight conditions.

But if the weather does not cooperate, the only other options may be larger, more deluxe planes typically used by top government officials. For example, the 89th Airlift Wing contains a C-32A, the military equivalent of a Boeing 757 that often flies the vice president as “Air Force Two.” That plane seats 45 and has 16 crew members. The Wing also counts in its fleet a C-40B, a refurbished Boeing 737 that can hold up to 32 passengers and 10 crew. The wing’s Web site states that the C-40B is designed as an “office in the sky” and is equipped with a crew rest area, distinguished visitor compartment with sleep accommodations and business-class seating with worktables.

But in a statement on Wednesday, the Defense Department said that while it would provide Pelosi with a plane, it could not guarantee nonstop flights to California. Thus, it is unclear what kind of plane Pelosi ultimately will fly on, or even whether she will be able to consistently use the same plane in her trips home.

Susan Davis contributed to this report.

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