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President endorses base realignment plan

Deb Riechmann Associated Press

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday endorsed a plan for closing 22 major military bases and reconfiguring 33 others, leaving their fate to Congress.

Bush had until Sept. 23 to either accept the entire report from an independent commission and send it to Congress, or return it to the commission for further work.

The report will become final in 45 days unless Congress acts to reject it in full. In previous rounds, lawmakers never have rejected reports, meaning communities probably have little hope of a reprieve for their bases.

Bush had said that for the process to be “nonpolitical” the commission’s decision would have to stand. He got the report last Friday from the nine-member Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Thursday criticized what she called Bush’s “rushed response” in approving the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s report. Last month the commission refused to alter a Pentagon recommendation to move eight KC-135 tankers operated by the Air Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing from Fairchild to a base in Iowa. The reassignment could cost Spokane 200 of the 900 Air Guard jobs at the base.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the 141st has been using the tankers to transport troops and supplies to the Gulf Coast.

“We need to be able to respond to future emergencies in the Northwest quickly and effectively,” Cantwell said. “Depleting local emergency response resources is not a good strategy.”

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire sued the Pentagon and the base closure commission last week, saying homeland defense and disaster response are shared responsibilities of the state and federal governments. The refueling planes are being used to fly emergency supplies and personnel to the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, and are sometimes needed to combat wildfires, Gregoire said.

No court date had been set as of Thursday, and it was unclear how long it will take the lawsuit to work through the legal process.

Bush’s submission of the report comes as his administration and Congress are preoccupied with aiding the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast and addressing other priorities. A GOP-led effort in the Senate to derail the base-closing process, which Republican leaders feared could embarrass them, has fizzled.

The commission said its recommendations would mean annual savings of $4.2 billion, compared with $5.4 billion under the plan it received in May from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had recommended closing 33 major bases and realigning 29 others.

The commission largely endorsed Rumsfeld’s vision to restructure the domestic network of military bases to save billions of dollars over the next two decades and streamline the Army, Navy and Air Force.

But commissioners did recommend keeping open several major bases against the Pentagon’s wishes, including a shipyard in Kittery, Maine, a submarine base in Groton, Conn., and Air Force bases in South Dakota and New Mexico.

The commission denied politics played a role in any decisions, even as it voted to keep open bases in the home states of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and other senators leading the opposition. That all but eliminated the possibility of congressional intervention.

In the House, the vast majority of members overwhelmingly support this round of closures and consolidations, which are the first in a decade.

Thune praised Bush for approving the report, which included a reprieve for Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. The pentagon sought to shutter the base that is home to half of the nation’s B1-B bombers.

“Although I still believe we should not be closing U.S. military facilities while at war, I commend the BRAC commission for taking an independent and objective approach to this process,” Thune said.

Military analysts have said that this may be the last chance the White House and Pentagon have to save money by shuttering bases. Congress probably will resist approving an additional round of closures, analysts say, given the large amount of heartache lawmakers experienced.

Congress reluctantly authorized this round of closures only after the White House threatened to veto an entire defense bill if it did not give the Pentagon the go-ahead.

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