WASHINGTON – The White House on Thursday came to the defense of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, describing as "silly" reports about her use of a large Air Force transport plane to travel back and forth from her West Coast district.
"This is a silly story and I think it's been unfair to the speaker," White House spokesman Tony Snow said at a morning briefing with reporters.
"We think it's important that the speaker of the House enjoy the same kind of security that we arranged for Speaker Hastert in the wake of September 11th. And like I said, I think that there's been a lot of over-hyped reporting on this," Snow said.
House Minority Leader John Boehner also said it is appropriate for Pelosi to have the plane, but questioned the need for a jet nearly the size of Air Force One.
“I think from a security standpoint having access to a plane, going to and from a district, makes a lot of sense,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "The question is about what’s reasonable to expect the taxpayers to pick up."
A plane with security for the House speaker is nothing new. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon agreed to provide a military plane to House Speaker Dennis Hastert to and from his district in Illinois. Hastert flew in a C-20, a small commuter-sized jet.
House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood, who is responsible for the speaker's security, advised Pelosi in December that the Air Force had made an airplane available to her predecessor. But because her congressional district is in California, Pelosi and her aides said she needs a larger plane that can fly coast to coast without refueling. The C-32 she requested is about the size of a Boeing 757-200 and has seating for 42 on it.
"It's not a question of size, it's a question of distance," Pelosi said Wednesday. "We want an aircraft that can reach California."
But not everyone is willing to support the use of a large jet by the speaker.
"This is not about having secure communications and secure aircraft available to her. It's about an arrogance of extravagance that demands a jumbo jet that costs $22,000 an hour to operate to taxi her and her buddies back and forth to California," Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida told FOX News.
Asked how much is too much to spend on Pelosi's security, Snow refused to take the bait.
“I don’t believe she’s asking to be put on the space shuttle,” he said.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., took a dig at the speaker in an amendment to legislation seeking to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"The Congress also finds that in order to lessen United States dependence on foreign sources of petroleum, and decrease demand for petroleum in aircraft, such as passenger planes with 42 business class seats capable of transcontinental flights, the nation must diversify its fuel supply for aircraft to include domestically produced alternative fuels," reads the new language.
On Capitol Hill, Pelosi, surrounded by reporters, called all the attention to the story "strange" and accused the Pentagon of leaking details of the issue to the press in retaliation for her strong criticism of Iraq war policy.
Noting that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "still has a desk in the Pentagon," Pelosi suggested that because she has been a "constant critic of the war in Iraq," the Pentagon was motivated "go public about a conversation on an issue that applied to a previous speaker."
Pelosi added that she doesn't actually want the additional security, but understands the need as second in the line of presidential succession. Pelosi said she would use a secure military plane if it is offered, but if not, she'll fly commercially on her own.
"I don't even like having the security. I would rather travel on the plane with my friends to get some work done," Pelosi said. "I like my freedom but there are certain sacrifices you have to make when you are speaker of the House."
On Wednesday, the Pentagon told Pelosi that she can't be guaranteed the larger size plane, and it would be based on availability.
Navy Cmdr. Jefrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that Pelosi would be offered "shuttle service for no more than 10 passengers between Washington and San Francisco only based on aircraft availability."
"This does not guarantee nonstop transport," Gordon said.
Details of the arrangements were transmitted to Pelosi in a letter, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday.
"The department had discussions with Congresswoman Pelosi's staff on DOD regulations with respect to travel and yesterday transmitted to her a letter that outlined the nature of the support that we could provide," Whitman said.
Snow said the plane agreement is between the Sergeant at Arms and the Defense Department, not the White House. Pelosi said she believes Bush supports her need for added security.
"I know for certain it is not the president … he has encouraged me to get all the security I need," Pelosi said.
Besides the use of a military aircraft, top leaders on Capitol Hill are also required to be transported around Washington, D.C., in a a secure, bulletproof vehicle. That too raised eyebrows in Washington, when a government-owned sports utility vehicle on Thursday transported Pelosi, who owns her own hybrid SUV, to a House panel hearing on global warming.
FOX News' Kelly Chernenkoff and Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.