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House action could end dogfights over fate of Hill

By a "veto-proof" majority, the House passed Tuesday a bill that Utah lawmakers say should finally end long battles that threatened the survival of Hill Air Force Base.

The House voted 286-123 to approve a compromise version of the annual Defense Authorization Bill. It now goes to the Senate. President Clinton has been considering a veto, but passage by the veto-proof two-thirds House majority makes that less likely.The bill contains a compromise designed to end a two-year battle over whether Clinton can "privatize-in-place" the workload at two ordered-to-close air bases, McClellan in California and Kelly in Texas, which compete with Hill.

Clinton proposed side-stepping those ordered closures in the vote-rich states during his campaign by giving their work in place to contractors. But that threatened Hill and other competing sister bases with outright closure instead.

After Congress initially blocked Clinton, he ordered public-private competition for the bases' workload. But Utah lawmakers and others complained that bid specifications were stacked to give priority to contractors who kept work in Texas and California.

The latest compromise preserves open competition for the work - but Congress writes into the law what fair and open competition should be and does not leave definitions up to the administration.

When House and Senate negotiators approved that compromise last week, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said Utahns and others had "called the bluff" of supporters of California and Texas bases who think they can outbid higher-rated Hill and others for work.

"Hill has nothing to lose, and I think it has much to gain in this situation," Bennett said. "If not, then the point by the people from Texas is well taken: We shouldn't spend taxpayer dollars to protect a base that can't do the job" - which he says is what has been happening with the California and Texas bases.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who has been leading the fight against "privatization-in-place" in the House, hailed the lopsided victory his side again gained on Tuesday.

"We have approved this bill at every level in the House and have won six votes with overwhelming bipartisan support. I urge the Senate and president to drop the politics and put our troops first," he said.

The Senate faces the possibility of a filibuster by Texas members against the bill, although Bennett has said he believes his side has enough votes to stop such an attempt to talk the bill to death.

Hansen urged the Senate to pass it - and the president not to veto it - to preserve other parts of the bill he says are essential to the military.

"This bill provides a full 2.8 percent pay raise for our troops," he said. "(Losing) a long overdue pay raise for our military families is too high a price to pay for California's electoral votes."

Hansen added, "What is more important: supporting our military families and standing up for fair competition, or fulfilling election-year promises to voter-rich states by ignoring the base closure law?

"Any veto of this bill will hurt our soldiers, handicap the Pentagon and kill any chance to use the independent base closure process again," he said.