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White House defends Pelosi's access to Air Force plane
WASHINGTON -- Democrat Nancy Pelosi received some rare help Thursday from the White House against a barrage of Republican criticism over how the new House speaker intends to get back home.
For security reasons, Pelosi is entitled to fly to her San Francisco district on military planes.
The House sergeant-at-arms, who helps oversee security for the House, suggested that flying nonstop would be the safest way home for Pelosi, next after the vice president in the line of presidential succession.
Republicans, led by aggressive junior lawmakers, seized on the most extreme possibility: Pelosi's flying on the military equivalent of a Boeing 757 with the latest in travel comforts.
Too expensive, some critics said. Too polluting, others said. Too much ado about nothing, the White House weighed in.
"I have never asked for any larger plane," Pelosi said. "I have said that I am happy to ride commercial if the plane they have doesn't go coast to coast."
To presidential spokesman Tony Snow, "This is a silly story, and I think it's been unfair to the speaker."
During debate on a bill that encouraged research on advanced fuels, Republicans proposed an amendment urging planes diversify their fuel load to include "domestically produced alternative fuels."
The amendment singled out "passenger planes with 42 business class seats capable of transcontinental flights" -- exactly the specifications of an Air Force C-32 jet.
"The jet that Pelosi has produces 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide an hour, far more than the previous speaker used," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. Pelosi's predecessor was Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Flying in a large Air Force plane, Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said, "appears to remove any spending controls from our operations and dramatically increases our impact on the environment especially climate change."
Snow, too, came under criticism.
"He does not have a duty, as I do, to come to this floor and to discuss the consequences for our taxpayers," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration agreed to provide Hastert with a military plane for added security during trips back home. Hastert flew in a commuter-sized Air Force jet.
House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood said in a statement he recommended the Pentagon continue the practice, begun with Hastert, of flying the speaker back home.
"The fact that Speaker Pelosi lives in California compelled me to request an aircraft that is capable of making nonstop flights for security purposes, unless such an aircraft is unavailable," he said.
The Pentagon this week told Pelosi's staff she would be provided with a plane but the size would be based on availability and nonstop service could not be guaranteed.
The Defense Department's guidelines 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 join her if the House ethics committee clears the travel.
Pelosi speculated that Pentagon officials were distorting the story as retribution for her stance against the war and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"Why would the Department of Defense be not denying this information that has been conveyed?" she asked. "Why are they feeding the flames?"
Snow called Pelosi's office to make sure she knew the White House supported her use of a military plane.
He also distanced the White House from the GOP's take on the matter. The Republican National Committee said Pelosi was on a "power trip." Snow, asked whether the RNC is free to go after Pelosi on its own, said, "Well, apparently they did this time."
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.