Pentagon rejects Speaker Pelosi's request for military aircraft
(2/08/07) -- A source close to the controversy over the request made by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for use of a military plane that can fly to and from her home district in San Francisco without having to stop to refuel, told ABC News that the Pentagon has rebuffed Pelosi's request.
The source said that Pentagon officials and the Bush administration have instead offered Pelosi use of the same plane made available to former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.: a C-20, which seats about 12 passengers and five crew members.
A C-20 can make the 700-mile flight to Hastert's Aurora, Ill., district easily but would generally have to stop to refuel to complete the 2,800-mile trip from Washington, D.C. to the San Francisco Bay Area, depending on the headwinds.
Pelosi has expressed concern about having to stop and refuel, primarily for security reasons, her office said. Since 9/11, the speaker of the House -- second in line behind the vice president to succeed the president -- has received what the Air Force refers to as "shuttle service," the use of military planes to travel for security reasons. Hastert used a C-20, the military version of the Gulf Stream 3 business jet, a twin-engine turbo-fan aircraft that seats 12 passengers with a crew of five.
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. J.D. Gordon outlined the rules and restrictions governing Speaker Pelosi's use of the C-20:
No more than 10 passengers (C-20's seat only 12 passengers, not including up to 5 crew members);
No travel to political events;
Members of the speaker's family cannot fly unless the speaker makes a request in writing. The Pelosi family has to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for the cost of a coach ticket per person for the travel, as well as for any food;
Members of Congress cannot fly on the plane unless their travel has been cleared with the House Committee on Standards (the Ethics Committee);
Pelosi's husband can travel for free, but only for official protocol purposes.
In response to the Pentagon's offer, Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly told ABC News, "We appreciate the Defense Department's continuing concern for the speaker's security. We are reviewing their letter."
Pelosi: I Want an Aircraft That Will Reach California
Earlier today, Pelosi responded to Republican critics who have accused her of making unreasonable demands on the Pentagon for a luxurious airplane her Republican predecessor never requested.
"I want an aircraft that will reach California," Pelosi told reporters Wednesday afternoon, insisting that she doesn't care what kind of plane it is as long as it can fly nonstop to her home district.
Pelosi said news reports suggesting that she seeks a lavish jet suggest a "misrepresentation that could only be coming from the administration. One would wonder why the practice deemed to be necessary from a security standpoint would be mischaracterized in the press. I know that it's not coming from the president, because he impressed upon me the amount of security I need to have."
Because the C-20 generally would need to stop and refuel to make it all the way to the Bay Area, Pelosi requested a plane that could make it to California without having to stop along the way, and asked for clarification from the Pentagon about whether friends and colleagues could accompany her.
Various Republican officials in recent days have claimed that Pelosi has requested a C-32 plane for her travels -- a luxurious and specially configured version of the Boeing 757-200 commercial intercontinental airliner. The plane seats 45 passengers with business-class accommodations and a crew of up to 16, depending on the mission. It features a communications center, a fully enclosed stateroom for the primary passenger, a changing area, a conference facility, an entertainment system, and a convertible divan that seats three and folds out to a bed. The C-32 can cost as much as $22,000 an hour to operate. It's normally used by the first lady, the vice president, Cabinet officials and members of Congress upon request.
"Just a month into the new Democratic majority, we are talking about the costs of an arrogance of office," said Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida at a briefing for reporters Tuesday. "The same week she is talking about fiscal responsibility, she is requesting a jumbo jet to taxi her back and forth from her district, something that is a major deviation from the previous speaker. Certainly, it is the interest of someone who is in the presidential succession to have access to a secure aircraft, but this is not a routine military charter flight. This is Air Force Three."
Late Wednesday afternoon, one of Pelosi's closest allies in the House, Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., chairman of the key Appropriations Committee subcommittee on defense, told CNN that the Pentagon was making "a mistake" by leaking information unfavorable to the speaker "since she decides on the allocations for the Department of Defense."
I'll C-20 and Raise You
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., seems to be the one who first publicly raised the notion that the plane Pelosi requested is the C-32.
"I understand on this particular airplane there is a bedroom," Blunt said.
"I hadn't heard that," Putnam said.
"There is a stateroom," Blunt said. "It is kind of a flying Lincoln bedroom."
A Blunt aide said he first heard that the plane Pelosi requested had a bedroom on CNN's "Lou Dobbs" Monday evening. "She could take a circus with her, for crying out loud," Dobbs said.
A Democratic aide maintained that this was all nonsense.
"The Republicans and the administration are intentionally mischaracterizing this," the aide said. "This is a security issue, and that's it. They've got nothing else to talk about so they make this up."
The Hastert Precedent
The controversy began in December 2006, when House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood first told Pelosi that the Air Force had made an airplane available to Hastert to travel to and from his district after 9/11.
But, Livingood said in a statement, he "was uncertain of the rules and guidelines governing use of the plane" so he called the Pentagon and Air Force to seek clarification of the guidelines. Subsequently, several members of Pelosi's staff and members of the Office of the Sergeant at Arms met with officials from the Pentagon and the Air Force liaison office to discuss the rules and guidelines that governed Hastert's use of a plane.
On Feb. 1, unnamed administration and congressional sources leaked to the Washington Times that Pelosi was "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.'"
On Tuesday, Feb. 6, House Republican leaders began accusing Pelosi of arrogance and hypocrisy, and calling the plane "Pelosi One."
Pelosi and her aides said all she cares about is that the plane is able to fly direct to her home district in San Francisco without having to stop and refuel. Capt. Herb McConnell, the spokesman for the 89th Airlift wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, said the C-20 is sometimes "able to make a coast-to-coast flight at times during the year, but not when there are strong headwinds such as during the winter."
Republican leaders have also stated -- with no tangible evidence -- that Pelosi wants to use the plane to reward financial contributors.
"She was offered the same aircraft that the previous speaker had," Putnam said yesterday. "It sat 12 people, and she refused it, didn't think it was big enough for all of her friends and supporters. In fact, she specifically requested that supporters be able to travel."
Said Blunt, "If you can take your supporters in the air on a government plane, that is a pretty big perk to be able to offer, I would think, whether you are the speaker or anybody else."
Putnam said that this was hypocritical, since "this just after we passed a ban on flying on corporate aircraft and a ban on flying with lobbyists, and yet she is requesting that supporters/lobbyists be allowed to fly on a military aircraft that the taxpayers are picking up the tab for," Putnam said. He called for Pelosi to provide public manifests of the itineraries and costs of the flight, which one congressional source said might cost as much as $22,000 an hour to operate, and to provide some way for the public to make sure political contributors weren't receiving free trips at taxpayers' expense.
Pelosi's office denied that she wanted anyone to be able to travel on the plane other than those Hastert was able to bring along -- security, staff, family and members of Congress going to the same airport.
"It has nothing to do with family and friends and everything to do with security," Pelosi said Wednesday. The sergeant at arms, she said, thinks "there is a need for this security. They have asked for it to continue. It is up to the Air Force and administration to do that."
Democrats suspected Bush administration operatives of stoking the flames of what Democrats deem a nonstory. The White House today was asked if it's "a good idea" for Pelosi to "have a large government military jet available to her to go back and forth to California?"
"After Sept. 11, the Department of Defense --
with the consent of the White House -- agreed that the speaker of the House should have military transport," replied White House spokesman Tony Snow. "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. So Speaker Hastert had access to military aircraft and Speaker Pelosi will, too."
The White House deferred all questions about the size of the plane to the Pentagon.
Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col Cathy Reardon tells ABC News that when Hastert used the plane, "it was himself, and he usually had one to three staff members and two security staff -- members of the Capitol police force. His wife would sometimes fly, and he reimbursed the government for everyone," paying the government for the cost of a commercial flight to the same place. Hastert's office did not return a call for comment.
Reardon recalls that "shuttle service" began when as a result of 9/11 all commercial airports were closed. "It was a time of great uncertainty, so right after 9/11, Speaker Hastert requested from the Department of Defense airlift support because of airport closures and his position" in presidential succession.
"In 2003, the increased security environment and his vulnerability in a commercial airport led to agreements with DOD for him to use 89th Airlift Wing assets," Reardon says.
A Fourth Option?
There are four types of planes available at the 89th Airlift wing, at nearby Andrews Air Force Base -- the C-20 Hastert once used, C-21s which are even smaller than the C-20 and thus not able to fly nonstop to San Francisco, and the fabled C-32.
There is also the C-37A -- a military version of the Gulf Stream 5, which is about the same size as the C-20, but is able to fly nonstop to California. One military source who asked not to be identified says that it may be that Pelosi and her aides were shown a C-37A and didn't understand that it was different and more potent than a C-20, since they look so similar.
Would Pelosi be willing to use a smaller plane than the lavish C-32 as long as it could fly coast to coast?
"Yes," said a Pelosi aide.
Z Byron Wolf, Dean Norland and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.
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