WASHINGTON—Everybody, including the woman who's at the center of Washington's latest tempest in a teapot, agrees on this much: The Pentagon was considering a request to give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi access to a bigger Air Force jet than previous speakers had.
From there, the story lines diverge, much like flight routes heading east versus west.
Republicans charge that she's trying to abuse the privileges of office. Pelosi, a California Democrat, denies doing anything wrong and says such slurs could be coming only from the White House.
"It has nothing to do with family and friends and everything to do about security," Pelosi said Wednesday.
Still, it's a potential image problem for the first female speaker—already caricatured for her wealth, love of designer clothes and chocolate obsession—to be portrayed as thinking she deserves her own Air Force Three.
Congressional Republicans claim they're afraid that Pelosi may want to give her political supporters free flights in Air Force jets big enough to take a presidential delegation to the Middle East.
They're also questioning whether Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a close Pelosi ally and the House of Representatives' top defense appropriator, tried to bully the Pentagon into going along.
Rep. Adam H. Putnam, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Republican Conference, wants an investigation. "It's an extravagance of power the taxpayers won't swallow," he said.
Republican complaints about Pelosi's jet draw on recent articles in The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper in the nation's capital, that cited unnamed sources.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, isn't waiting for an investigation. His group sent out a news release with a photo of a C-32 jet, the military version of Boeing's 757-200 jetliner, and this question: "During a week in which Democrats are pushing a resolution that states, `it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating the United States military force presence in Iraq,' they believe that securing Speaker Pelosi the military plane pictured below . . . is in the national interest?"
Pelosi denies any impropriety.
"The only misrepresentations could be coming from the administration and one would only have to wonder why. . . . I know it's not coming from the president of the United States because he has impressed upon me over and over again the need for me to have the security that I need," she said Wednesday.
Pelosi and her aides said 12-seat Air Force jets—the kind that Republican former House Speaker Dennis Hastert used to get home to Illinois—can't always get to California without refueling, a claim confirmed by an Air Force official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities involved.
Pelosi also says that not flying commercial is a matter of personal and perhaps national security, as the House speaker is second in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president.
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon said Wednesday night that the Defense Department has notified Pelosi in writing that she would have access to the same jet service as Hastert had.
"She will be offered shuttle service for no more than 10 passengers between Washington and San Francisco only based on aircraft availability," Gordon said. "This does not guarantee nonstop transport."
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the speaker's office was reviewing the letter and that it appreciated "the Defense Department's continuing concern for the speaker's security."
It's unclear whether the Defense Department's letter ends the issue or whether negotiations would continue.
Publicly, the White House took a stance somewhere between neutral and supportive of Pelosi. White House spokesman Tony Snow said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the White House and Defense Department agreed that House speakers should have military transport.
"And so what is going on is that the Department of Defense is going through its rules and regulations and having conversations with the speaker about it."
Murtha said he'd sought jet privileges for every Democratic House speaker since Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., in the late `70s, and never threatened anyone.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the speaker had used an Air Force jet only once to fly back from California and "she never asked for supporters on the plane."
Pelosi requested a jet to fly to a Democratic retreat last week in Williamsburg, Va., saying she thought that Hastert had used a jet similarly, but her request was rejected.
For more on the C-32 jet, go to http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID=90
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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