House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's aides say she just wants to get home to California now and then and would like to do it in a plane that can make it all the way without stopping to refuel.
Critics say the San Francisco Democrat is abusing the perks of power by attempting to commandeer a fancy jumbo-size military jet with a "distinguished visitor compartment with sleep accommodations."
The flap over how the House speaker gets around has been circling over Washington since last week, but on Wednesday, it landed.
"Flying Lincoln bedroom," Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a story stripped across the top of the conservative-leaning Washington Times.
"Pelosi One," Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) said in the same article.
"Ridiculous," Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly countered after his boss was peppered with questions at the tail-end of an event with Iraq war veterans.
At issue is what kind of aircraft the House speaker -- second in line to the presidency -- should use to get around the country. For years, speakers flew commercial like everybody else in Congress. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was deemed that anyone two heartbeats away from the presidency warranted a military jet.
Until now, the only speaker affected was Republican J. Dennis Hastert, who commuted to his Illinois district in small executive-style military jets.
But those aircraft require ideal weather conditions to make the cross-country trip without stopping to refuel.
The military passenger plane that can make the flight in any weather and also provide the communications necessary to stay in contact with the White House is the bigger and costlier C-40 -- described by the Air Force as an "office in the sky" with beds, two galleys and business-class seating.
It's this plane that critics have flogged for a week in an attempt to paint Pelosi as a San Francisco elitist who wants to fly around in splendor with family and friends.
"That has nothing to do with family and friends and everything to do with security," a perturbed Pelosi said Wednesday at the event for veterans. "It's a question of distance."
Pelosi suggested that the Bush administration was trying to sabotage her. "The ... misrepresentation could [only] be coming from the administration, and one would only have to wonder why," she said.
The Defense Department delivered a letter to Pelosi late Wednesday that "offers her, as a courtesy, the same provisions to travel that Speaker Hastert had," said a senior Defense official. The official said that Pelosi would be offered the use of available aircraft, which could sometimes include the larger plane.
Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, would not elaborate on the letter, saying it was being "reviewed."
Military officials said in interviews that there were more VIPs looking for rides than there were planes available.
Air Force officials say at least 21 people can theoretically request to use the C-40s and there are only four of the planes. The 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base has two; the Air National Guard also has two.
Those who can ask for the planes include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet secretaries and seven commanders who oversee military operations around the world. In addition, the planes are regularly used to fly congressional delegations to military theaters.
The Air Force's descriptions of the C-40 perhaps make the plane sound more elegant than it is. The seats are similar to those in commercial first-class cabins, and most have electrical outlets and Internet access.
Hastert flew in the military's smaller jets: the C-20, a version of a 12-seat Gulfstream; the C-21, a version of a six-seat Learjet; and the C-37, a version of a 12-seat Gulfstream. Hastert, according to a military official, usually traveled with up to three staff members and two members of the Capitol Police. Occasionally his wife, Jean, came along too.
The House sergeant at arms originally advised Pelosi that Hastert had used a military plane and recommended that she use one that didn't need to refuel. That prompted her office to request clarification of the rules, Daly said, noting that she never actually requested a specific plane.
Daly acknowledged, however, that Pelosi has inquired whether family and friends can fly with her on business travel. A mother of five and grandmother of six, Pelosi's family often accompanies her on the road.
Pelosi supporters charge that the controversy is being fueled by GOP opponents who are still burning over an election loss that stemmed from Pelosi's charges of a "culture of corruption" in Congress.
"It's one of the things they are still very raw from ... and that's part of the root of this -- to make her the symbol of Democratic entitlement, Democratic abuses," said Anita Dunn, a Washington Democratic strategist.
It was under Pelosi's leadership that the House last month banned the use of corporate jets at bargain prices by lawmakers as part of its much-touted ethics reform package. And critics said this week that that made her a hypocrite.
"Speaker's luxury travel paid for by American families, taxpayers," the Republican Study Committee charged via e-mail.
"Nancy Pelosi ... can now fly in style at your expense," CNN's Lou Dobbs said in one of several critical commentaries over the last week.
Pelosi said Wednesday she would just as soon fly commercial, but security rules wouldn't allow it. Aides say she is so mindful of not misusing the powers of office that when she recently encountered a wild bird in her Georgetown condo, she called the super rather than the security detail downstairs. In fact, they noted, the speaker herself caught the bird in a brown bag.
So far, Pelosi hasn't used one of the big jets that has caused all the fuss. In her single trip home as speaker since being sworn in Jan. 4, she flew commercial to San Francisco and took a military 12-seater back to Washington. With the benefit of tailwinds, it made it without refueling.
Pelosi asked to use a military plane to go to a recent retreat of House Democrats in Williamsburg, Va., less than a three-hour drive from the capital. The request was denied and Pelosi took the train.
When the Los Angeles Times asked for copies of correspondence between her office and relevant agencies about any transportation requests, Daly's e-mail response was "no."
Controversies over luxury travel are a Washington staple.
Vice President Dan Quayle had to explain his use of an Air Force jet to go golfing in Arizona while on a long skiing vacation in Colorado one Christmas.
A President Clinton aide was fired for using a helicopter on a golf outing. And Clinton himself was forced to apologize for parking Air Force One on a tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport while he got a haircut in what came to be known as "Hair Force One."
Such offenses don't necessarily rise to the level of scandal, but the opposition works with what it has.
"This is the smash-mouth politics of Washington -- how can we make something that is fairly routine sound as bad as possible," strategist Dunn said.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has several aircraft to choose from for travel, but only the C-40 can make it to California without refueling. The others require ideal weather conditions to make a cross-country trip without stopping. However, the C-40 is larger and costlier -- the fuel cost is $1,584 an hour. A look at the choices:
Military version of Boeing 737-700
Maximum range: 5,178 to 5,754 miles unrefueled
Maximum load: C-40B, 26 to 32 passengers; C-40C, 42 to 111 passengers
Crew: 10 (varies with model and mission)
Based on Gulfstream V
Maximum range: 6,300 miles, normal cruise
Maximum load: 12 passengers
Military version of Learjet 35A business jet
Maximum range: 2,306 miles
Maximum load: Eight passengers
Crew: Two (pilot and co-pilot)
Military version of Gulfstream III
Maximum range: C-20B, 4,250 miles; C-20H, 4,850 miles
Maximum load: 12 passengers
Source: U.S. Air Force Note: Weather, headwinds and number of passengers can substantially reduce ranges of aircraft.