WASHINGTON — The Air Force transport plane decried by Republicans as an extravagance for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was requested by the House sergeant-at-arms as a matter of security, he said Thursday.
“I regret that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue,” Bill Livingood said in a news release. He said because Pelosi lives in California he was compelled “to request an aircraft that is capable of making non-stop flights for security purposes, unless such an aircraft is unavailable. This will ensure communications capabilities and also enhance security.”
Republicans had taken issue with the size of the plane Pelosi would need to fly in to reach her hometown of San Francisco without refueling. There are three Air Force airplanes that have the fuel capacity to make the trip nonstop, with the largest being a C-32 plane, a military version of the Boeing 757-200.
‘This is a silly story’
The White House on Thursday defended Pelosi.
“This is a silly story, and I think it’s been unfair to the speaker,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Pelosi speculated to reporters that Department of Defense officials were distorting the story as retribution for her stance against the war and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“There are probably those in the Department of Defense who are not happy with my criticism of Secretary Rumsfeld, the war in Iraq, other waste, fraud and abuse in the Defense Department, and I guess this is their way of making their voices heard,” she said.
The Pentagon this week informed Pelosi’s staff that she would be provided with a plane but that its size would be based on availability and that it could not guarantee nonstop service.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon agreed to provide the House speaker, who is second in the line of presidential succession, with a military plane for added security during trips back home. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, flew in a small commuter-sized Air Force jet.
‘I’m going commercial’
Pelosi said she would be happy to fly on commercial airliners but said the House sergeant-at-arms office urged her to continue Hastert’s practice of using Air Force transport. She said she was informed on her first trip home that her plane would not make it across the country.
“I said well, that’s fine, I’m going commercial,” she told Fox News. “I’m not asking to go on that plane. If you need to take me there for security purposes, you’re going to have to get a plane that goes across the country, because I’m going home to my family.”
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Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the No. 3 Republican leader, called the push for a large transport plane “an extravagance of power that the taxpayers won’t swallow.”
“It’s important we see what the specific request was,” Putnam said.
But Snow on Thursday said the negotiations over Pelosi’s transport have been conducted solely by the House sergeant-at-arms and the Pentagon, with no direct involvement by the speaker or her office — or the White House.
The guidelines provided by the Pentagon say Pelosi could be accompanied by family members, provided they pay the government coach fare. The plane could not be used for travel to political events. Members of Congress could accompany her on the plane if the travel is cleared by the House ethics committee.
The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.