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The Defense Department has agreed to furnish House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with a jet big enough to fly nonstop coast-to-coast, despite complaints from some Republicans that the request was causing friction at the Pentagon.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for the Speaker, said Friday that Pelosi had asked the Pentagon for “clarification” on rules governing her use of military planes. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Speaker was granted access to military transport for additional security, given the person in that job is third in the line of succession to the presidency.
The plane used by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for frequent trips back to his Illinois home was a small, Lear-type jet, according to a Republican leadership aide. But that plane needs to refuel every 2,000 miles and could not make the nonstop haul to California.
“The Air Force determined that [Pelosi’s] safety would be best ensured by using a plane that has the fuel capacity to go coast-to-coast,” Hammill said. “All we’re asking for is what Hastert had.”
Hammill pointed to the busier Congressional work schedule as a reason why it was necessary to avoid lengthy layovers, especially in Plains States, where harsh winter weather could cause further delays.
“There’s a certain amount of inefficiency and risk involved in stopping and having to refuel,” he said.
On Friday, Pelosi’s office waded into the growing public relations battle over how the Speaker travels and with whom. The Washington Times reported last week that Pelosi was demanding permanent access to a large military jet for herself, her staff, other Members and supporters.
A Bush administration official and a senior Hill Republican said that Pelosi’s requests were causing serious friction in the Pentagon, which views them as a strain on a system that is charged with providing military transport for Cabinet officials and top generals and commanders. A permanent large plane for Pelosi, the Hill Republican said, would mean less availability for other high-ranking officials.
“The Department of Defense offered Speaker Pelosi the same aircraft” as the one used by Hastert, said one senior Republican who has spoken extensively with Defense Department officials about Pelosi’s requests. “She found it was not big enough for staff, supporters and other Members.”
But Hammill denied any substantial controversy with the Pentagon brass. “Were not talking about major negotiations here. We’re talking about a few phone calls seeking clarification.”
One administration official said that the new Speaker had asked that a plane be designated for her use in traveling to the Democratic retreat late last week in Williamsburg, Va., which is 152 miles from Washington, D.C.
Hammill confirmed that Pelosi had asked the Pentagon for guidance regarding the use of military aircraft for Congressional retreats.
“The request was to clarify whether retreats are covered,” Hammill said. “We had the knowledge that Hastert had used [a military plane] for a retreat on one occasion.”
Ultimately, Pelosi did not use the plane to travel to the retreat; the administration official said that request had been denied.
Hammill said that so far, the California Democrat had only used the Air Force plane for a single January trip back to San Francisco. He added that Pelosi asked the Pentagon a number of questions regarding how the plane could be employed, such as whether it could be used solely for official business or also for political travel. The Speaker’s office also requested clarification on who can legally travel on the plane in addition to the Speaker, such as staff and supporters.
Hammill said the Pentagon has yet to respond to these specific queries. Defense Department officials did not return repeated calls to comment for this story.
Lawmaker access to military jets may be even more important now that the House has instituted new gift rules that prohibit lawmakers from using corporate jets under any circumstances.
One Republican leadership aide said Hastert routinely flew commercially, usually on United Airlines, back to his Illinois district until Sept. 11, 2001. At that point, the White House decided for security reasons the Speaker should have access to a military plane for his travel.
Despite the lack of clear restrictions on the plane’s use, the leadership aide said Hastert decided to use the plane solely for official business and not for political travel, which would have required reimbursements to the government of several thousand dollars per hour of use.
Hastert sometimes traveled on the plane, which was described as relatively small, with other staff and occasionally his wife.
“We would not use it for political business,” said the leadership aide. “We would take corporate or commercial.”
“There were no clear rules,” the aide added.
The White House would not comment on the issue and referred all questions to the Defense Department, which responded with guidance on appropriate Congressional foreign trips.
Under Defense Department rules, Members of Congress typically fly military planes for official foreign travel or for domestic trips to military bases. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Speaker had to abide by the same rules as everyone else.
Reached by phone on Friday, ex-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) said that he typically flew commercial like everyone else.
“I traveled almost exclusively by commercial jet. I didn’t have access to a military plane that I was aware of,” Wright said. “I do have some memory that someone called me and said there would be one available if I needed to use it, and I don’t think I ever did take them up on that.”