Defense Secretary William Cohen said Saturday that he’ll ask Congress for two more rounds of military base closings so the Pentagon can afford to buy more fighter planes and submarines.
“I think it will probably have a better chance this year than last year,” he said, referring to the failure of a similar proposal to win congressional approval.
“This is something they’ve got to face up to,” Cohen said of Congress. “I have tried to impress on them that all the easy choices are gone.”
But he added: “I’m not sure they are any warmer to the idea today than they were last year.”
The request for more base closings in 2001 and 2005 is likely to be one of the most controversial elements of the Pentagon’s $257.3 billion annual budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Cohen and senior military leaders have argued, thus far unsuccessfully, that additional base closings are needed so money would be available for new weapons, including jet fighter-bombers such as the new Joint Strike Fighter and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.
But congressional opposition to more closings has included top leaders of both political parties. When the Pentagon asked Congress last year to approve a base-closing commission for base closings in 1999 and 2001, the plan was killed 66-33 in the Senate, and the House didn’t even take up the issue.
Cohen said he hopes to persuade Congress this year by pointing to the findings of an independent, congressionally mandated defense panel that also recommended more closings.
He said he’ll get help lobbying Congress from Warren Rudman, former Republican senator from New Hampshire, who heads a private commission currently assessing possible cuts to bases, and from the Business Executives for National Security, an organization representing business leaders.
The Pentagon also is trying to convince mayors around the nation that their regions can bounce back from the economic loss of a base closure, Cohen said.
In addition, a senior Pentagon official said Cohen will stress to lawmakers the findings of a Pentagon Inspector General report that concludes previous base closings have saved hundreds of millions of dollars, a fact disputed by some lawmakers opposed to additional closures.
Since the late 1980s, the government has closed or announced plans to close 97 bases and realign activities at several hundred smaller facilities.
Those closures and realignments were made by the independent Base Realignment and Closure commission, or BRAC, that convened four times - in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. After the 1995 round, the commission was disbanded, even though military officials said too many bases still remained open.
Congressional opponents have complained that President Clinton tainted the base closing process which had been fairly devoid of politics. In the run up to the 1996 presidential election, Clinton reversed the commission and ordered that Air Force depots in Texas and California slated for closure instead be privatized to save jobs. The two states have the most electoral votes.
As recently as December, key lawmakers were cool to the idea of more base closures.
“Dead on arrival is too absolute,” said John DeCrosta, a spokesman for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. “But I don’t think anybody is eager for another round, let alone two rounds.”