WASHINGTON — Utahns won two big fights Thursday as Congress passed a compromise defense bill. One helps protect Hill Air Force Base, and another ensures that downwind cancer victims of atomic tests who qualify for compensation are actually paid.

Despite a veto threat from President Bush, Congress delayed from 2003 to 2005 a new round of base closures. It did that by adopting language by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, that also reforms the closure system in ways he says should protect Hill.

And Congress approved a provision in the final bill to make payments to downwinders mandatory — meaning the program must no longer fight for money in the annual budget process.

Last year, the program ran out of money for months — so many who qualified for payments were simply sent IOUs. Now, anyone who qualifies must be paid.

The $343.3 billion 2002 Defense Authorization Bill passed 382-40 in the House and 96-2 in the Senate. Bush is expected to sign it — but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld criticized the base-closure delay and said it might still bring a veto.

The bill had been stalled for weeks because of the base-closure fight. Bush wanted another round of closures in 2003 to help save money, and the Senate narrowly supported that. The House, however, opposed any new closure rounds.

After Bush pledged to veto any defense bill that did not have 2003 base closures, House-Senate negotiators approved a compromise that Hansen says he drafted.

It calls for a new round of closures in 2005 and adds reforms to the closure system. "A lot of House members did not want a new round until all the bases ordered closed in the last round are actually padlocked and their work transferred," Hansen said.

Delaying a closure round until 2005 also puts it after two more congressional elections and a presidential election — reducing pressure on some members with at-risk bases.

Hansen's language also closes a loophole that former President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to use to threaten Hill. He initially refused to close two of its sister repair-and-logistics bases in vote-rich California and Texas, and proposed to keep them open by "privatizing in place" their work to contractors.

"This bans privatization in place," Hansen said.

Also, Hansen said the new process would allow the military to propose bases it thinks should be closed — and omit from that list any that it believes are essential to its missions. Hansen believes that Hill — one of three remaining huge air logistics bases — is now considered essential.

For a base-closure commission to add any base to final closure orders that was not initially listed by the military, the new law calls for a supermajority vote of at least seven of nine base-closure commission members. "That means any base not on the initial list is probably safe," Hansen said.

On top of that, he said new provisions allow the secretary of defense to challenge any base added to the list. As always, Congress could accept or reject the entire list.

While Hansen had helped fight any new closure round, he said he pushed the compromise because "I am convinced that we've got a 20 percent overcapacity. Keeping that is putting money down a rat hole."

Rumsfeld called the delay a "shame." He declined to say at his daily press conference whether he would recommend a veto because of it. "I'm going to have to sleep on it," he said.

He added, "We will be spending money . . . that is being wasted to manage and maintain bases that we don't need. Given the war on terrorism, we will be . . . providing force protection on bases that we do not need."

The downwinder provision was added to the bill by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., with support from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — who wrote the original law to compensate downwind atomic victims.

Domenici — ranking Republican on the Budget Committee — said ever since compensation was approved a decade ago, "We have sweat blood and tears every year (in budget battles) to scrape together money for the trust fund."

He said downwinders and uranium miners who qualify for payments now will no longer "wonder whether the federal government will ever make good on its commitment to them."

Said Hatch, "Finally, Utah's downwinders, uranium miners and others will no longer have to worry about receiving an IOU instead of a check to help pay for what was a great injustice to these people."

He added he was "shocked and outraged" earlier this year when the program ran out of money and "my constituents were receiving IOUs for compensation they deserved."

"I vowed to work day and night to ensure that funding . . . would be guaranteed."


E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com