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On Capitol Hill, Pelosi plane dispute stays at high altitude

War and the deficit are the official business, but lawmakers' heads seem to be in the clouds.

February 09, 2007|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The plane commotion continued Thursday, with the nation's capital in a partisan fizz.

On a day when the federal deficit and the Iraq war were the official business, Washington found itself caught up again in the question of whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should fly home to San Francisco in a big plane or a smaller one.

To recap: Security rules permit the speaker -- second in line to the presidency -- occasional use of a military passenger jet. Republican Rep. J. Dennis Hastert used one when he was speaker to commute to his Illinois district. But the one he used requires good flying conditions to make it to California without stopping to refuel. Pelosi wants to fly nonstop, which means a bigger plane.

Critics have assailed her request, saying she wants the bigger plane so she can have parties at 30,000 feet with her family and cronies.

On Thursday, Pelosi's office struggled to put to rest a matter that had ballooned into headline news, while GOP opponents gleefully maneuvered to squeeze out another day of portraying her as an entitled Presidio princess.

The day began with a news conference in which Pelosi announced she would fly commercial if the military could not provide a plane with a cross-country-sized fuel tank. Pentagon officials, after weeks of deliberation, have offered her the same kind of plane Hastert used but said she could use a larger one if it happened to be available.

"I am happy to ride commercial coast to coast," Pelosi said, sounding not very happy at all, as she went on to suggest that she was being denied the same privileges provided her predecessor. "I'm not saying that I am being discriminated against because I am a woman. I'm just saying as the first woman speaker, I have no intention of having less respect for the office I hold than all of the other speakers that have come before me."

She sniped at Republicans who have spent the last several days accusing her of excess, saying they "have nothing to say to the American people about the war, the economy, global warming and the rest. So they have this game they're playing."

She then suggested the Defense Department had deliberately mischaracterized her request for clarification of the rules on the use of military jets as a request for a big plane.

"Why are they feeding the flames?" she asked.

She offered an answer of her own: payback for her vocal criticism that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld mishandled the Iraq war.

On the House floor, Republicans took discussion on an alternative-fuel bill and turned it into a debate on Pelosi's transportation arrangements, by introducing an amendment that included the word "aircraft." That was enough to provide conservatives an opportunity to characterize her as the Leona Helmsley of Capitol Hill.

It was predictable partisan politics until White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, of all people, leaped to Pelosi's defense, calling the hubbub "silly" and "much ado about not a whole lot."

"It is important for the speaker to have this kind of protection and travel," he said.

Democrats on the House floor, hardly believing their ears, seized on Snow's sudden FOP (Friend of Pelosi) status and invoked his words to knock down Republican critics. What went without mention is the belief held by many Democrats that the White House was behind the leak about Pelosi's plane problems.

While the presidential spokesman defended Pelosi's right to military security, the Republican National Committee -- usually a White House echo chamber -- was busy beating her up with blast e-mails about "Nancy's flight of fancy."

One matter was clearly settled.

The Defense Department concluded that Pelosi's husband could accompany her on the plane for "official protocol purposes," but other family members would have to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for the ride. Not invited aboard, wrote an assistant Defense secretary, are "non-U.S. government travelers, other than your immediate family."

By the day's end, one person seen as scrupulously nonpartisan in the Capitol expressed disappointment with the weeklong flap.

House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood, who oversees security at the Capitol and has served Hastert as well as Pelosi, said it was he who had recommended that Pelosi fly home nonstop.

"I regret that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue," he said in a statement, perhaps one of the most restrained issued all day.

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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