House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., today responded to Republican critics who have accused her of making unreasonable demands on the Pentagon for a luxurious airplane her Republican predecessor never requested.
Pelosi charged that the Pentagon is treating her request for a military plane differently than that of her predecessor because she is a woman.
The Speaker told gathered reporters, "As a woman, as a woman speaker of the House, I don't want any less of an opportunity than male speakers when they have served here," implying a sexist undertone to the recent criticism.
"This is something that's very strange that the Department of Defense and the Pentagon, which I have been a constant critic of the war in Iraq...has decided that they will go public about a conversation on an issue that applied to the other Speaker," Pelosi continued, refering to former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
"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.
But by Thursday, Pelosi's tune had changed, telling reporters, "If they can have a plane that can go cross country then I'll take that plane. If they don't, I will go commercial."
Pelosi claimed on Wednesday that 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."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the speaker of the House of Representatives -- second in the line of succession to the presidency behind the vice president -- has received what the Air Force refers to as "shuttle service," the use of military planes to travel for security reasons. Pelosi's predecessor, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., 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.
But while the C-20 could fly to Hastert's Aurora, Ill., district, which is slightly more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C., without stopping to refuel, Pelosi's home district is in San Francisco, more than 2,800 miles from the nation's capital, and the C-20 generally would need to stop and refuel to make it all the way to the Bay Area. So 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."
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 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.
"We're still waiting to hear back from the Air Force on those guidelines," said Brendan Daly, communications director for Pelosi.
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.
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 and Dean Norland contributed to this report.