June 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Base-Closure Effort Sunk By Senate Panel

Paul Richter Los Angeles Times
 

The Clinton administration’s effort to start a new round of military base closures has been torpedoed by a Senate committee, probably ending chances that any such initiative will make it out of Congress this year.

The proposal, strongly supported by Defense Secretary William Cohen and the armed service chiefs, was sunk in the Senate Armed Services Committee largely because of lingering GOP resentment over President Clinton’s move to keep open two bases in politically vital California and Texas one year before his reelection bid, lawmakers and analysts say.

The Clinton administration’s move to save the Air Force maintenance jobs at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif., and Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, “is coming back to bite them,” said Erick Pages of Business Executives for National Security, an advocate of new rounds of base closures.

And some analysts believe the same dynamics could spell trouble for the base-closure effort next year, when the prospects for a new round already will be complicated by the approach of the mid-term elections.

The showdown on the base closure came in the armed services committee late Thursday as it acted on the $268 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 1998. Supported by defense officials, Senate proponents of closures had argued that more savings from unneeded infrastructure were badly needed to pay for the replacement of outdated weaponry.

They had argued that new rounds of closures were needed in 1999 and 2002. But in a closed session, nine members voted for the measure and nine against it - killing the proposal and stunning its Senate supporters.

“It was a disappointment,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. “I expected to win by one vote.” Levin and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Robb, D-Va., now plan to try to add language to the defense bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

But that will be considerably harder to do than injecting the language in committee, especially given the abundant signs of dissatisfaction over Clinton’s move. And Levin acknowledged that it “could be hard” to get the amendment to the floor.

In the House, where the closure of a local base is far more likely to threaten a lawmaker’s career, attitudes toward new closures already have been more hostile. And in recent weeks the depth of resentment of Clinton’s move has been increasingly clear.

A major Pentagon report released last month said that new rounds of base closures and cuts in armed services personnel were needed to finance the modernization of weapons systems. The report cited military test ranges, weapons labs and training centers as prime targets.

Past base closures followed a procedure whereby Clinton and Congress were required to accept all or none of the panel’s recommendations on which facilities were to be closed. In the summer of 1995, as Clinton’s re-election campaign was gearing up, he accepted most of the commission’s recommendations for closure, but effectively overruled its proposed shutdown of McClellan and Kelly by promising to bring in private companies to perform the aircraft maintenance work at the bases.

That move has continued to draw protest from Senate and House Republicans, who claim it constituted unfair tampering with a system that was set up to be above partisan politics. Even Levin, who backed Clinton’s move, acknowledged that those who charge politicization of the process “have got a fair basis for their belief.”

One clear sign of the Republican outrage is language in the defense authorization bills that would require the Pentagon to send aircraft maintenance work to government-run maintenance depots before private companies unless the public ones are operating at or near full-capacity. The language would effectively shut down McClellan and Kelly.

“This is a direct hit at McClellan and Kelly,” said Liesl Heeter, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington research center.

She predicted a new base closures commission eventually will be created because of the government’s need to cut or redirect spending. “But it doesn’t look like this year, and next year I’d say it’s less likely,” she said.


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