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White House Defends Pelosi on Plane Issue

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

While the president stays mostly on the ground in Washington, one person who would like to be flying to be more is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Chances are if you've turned on the TV in the past few days, you'd heard of this flap on Capitol Hill.

Unidentified Man: We begin with a story on Speaker's Nancy Pelosi request -

Unidentified Woman #1: Nancy Pelosi has been flying high since becoming house speaker, but now an uproar -

Unidentified Woman #2: - over the five planes she has requested for flying her back and forth to her home district. Pelosi wants access to the military version of a Boeing 757.

NORRIS: We asked NPR's Andrea Seabrook to truth squad this story for us.

ANDREA SEABROOK: One week ago today, a front-page story in the Washington Times read, "The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pressing the Bush administration for routine access to military aircraft." That's where it started, in an un-sourced story. From there, it swept like wildfire across conservative blogs to Fox News and CNN and to the rest of the media.

SEABROOK: An off-camera briefing by House Republican leaders helped stoke the flames by claiming Pelosi would ferry family and cronies around the country at taxpayer expense. And by today, Queen Nancy's plane, as one blog put it, would divert troops from fighting terrorism and cause global warming, according to House Republicans Patrick McHenry and Adam Putnam.

Yesterday, after ignoring it for almost a week, Pelosi herself responded.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): The sergeant at arms requested of the Air Force a continuation of the practice they had for Speaker Hastert for security reasons. It has nothing to do with family and friends and everything to do about security.

SEABROOK: Here's the back story. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush deemed it necessary for the speaker of the House, second in line of the presidential succession, to fly with extra security on Air Force jets. Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, used these planes more than 100 times. Pelosi says when she became speaker, the sergeant at arms of the Capitol decided she needed at least the same amount of security as Hastert and maybe more because of all the attention she's gotten as the first female speaker.

Here's where politics comes in. Pelosi's office requested that the plane be capable of flying from Washington to her San Francisco district non-stop. That requires a larger jet than the small 12-seater Hastert routinely flew to Chicago. Republicans say Pelosi is requesting a large, luxurious plane. Pelosi says she only cares about flying non-stop.

The actual budget request for this plane goes through defense appropriations chairman Jack Murtha, a close ally of Pelosi's, who is also close to former Speakers Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright. Here's how he describes the tempest.

Representative JACK MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I'm requesting an aircraft to take her back and forth, that's all, just exactly like I did for Tip, just exactly like I did for Jim Wright, just exactly like I would've for Hastert, but he didn't need my help. He got his airplane on his own.

SEABROOK: Where do you think this whole story's coming from, sir?

Representative MURTHA: It's coming from the Pentagon leaking to the Washington Times, and the Washington Times is exaggerating the story. I mean, you know, look, look. This is a minor thing. I'm working on the big stuff.

SEABROOK: Pelosi has another ally in this, President Bush. She says he's repeatedly told her she needs extra security, and today White House press secretary Tony Snow called this whole story silly and unfair to the speaker.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): I think this is much ado about not a whole lot. It is important for the speaker to have this kind of protection in travel. It was certainly appropriate for Speaker Hastert, and so we trust that all sides will get this worked out.

SEABROOK: In the end, the Pentagon told the speaker's office that it can't guarantee a larger plane will always be available, so Pelosi says she'll fly commercially non-stop with her security detail. And there you have it, the speaker's first full-blown, all-out Washington kerfuffle.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.