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Bush base-closing plan faces fight

WASHINGTON — If President Bush really wants to mothball more military bases, he'll have to win over some folks who should already be in his camp: Military-minded Republican members of Congress.

"It depends on how much they want to do and how much they can prove to me that they've saved" from past closures, said new House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump of Arizona. He said he doesn't believe the government has saved money, and even his own vote is not certain.

Stump said legislation seeking a new round of base closures, the first since 1995, "faces a rough time in the House."

Likewise, Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., the new chairman of the committee's military installations and facilities panel, said he detected "very, very scant support for additional closures."

In addition to questionable cost savings, Saxton said, "There are real questions about what our needs for basing are in the United States in the future."

The Bush administration, looking to free up some money, said in its proposed 2002 budget last month that the military has a 23 percent surplus of bases. "It is clear that new rounds of base closures will be necessary," it said.

The budget summary did not specify the number of rounds or the estimated savings, but dozens of bases could be on the chopping block given the nation now has about 450 major bases and the previous four rounds of closings hit an average of two dozen each.

Democrats are also raising concerns about more closures.

"The easy ones are gone," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the Armed Services Committee's top Democrat. "I know he (Bush) may ask for it, but even if he gets it, it will be a very slow payoff."

And Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel, said, "I oppose another round because I don't think they are productive."

When the Clinton administration last March sought two more rounds of base closings, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen told Congress they would save $3 billion a year from 2008 to 2015.

Like the three previous years, Congress rejected the proposal, largely due to anger over President Clinton's special treatment in 1995 of two Air Force bases in politically critical states — McClellan in California and Kelly in Texas.

Rather than simply closing those bases, as the independent base closing commission proposed, Clinton called for privatizing their civilian jobs to ease the economic impact.

"With the base closing commission, the whole process was, 'Hey, take it or leave it, the whole thing,' and he didn't comply with that," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla. "So he lost credibility with Congress, and we said he's not going to get another round."

McClellan and Kelly are closing this year, having taken the six years allowed by law to clear out.

Nickles said Bush probably will get one round, but only after a tough fight.

The 97 major bases closed through the first four rounds — 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 — hit 28 states and Guam, with California losing 24 and Texas seven, the Pentagon says. Those rounds also saw hundreds of shutdowns of smaller facilities and realignments in which functions moved from one base to another, said spokesman Glenn Flood.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey also says Congress will approve a new round of closings. But he does not foresee a battle.

"It's a well-proven process, so it will probably happen naturally," said Armey, R-Texas.

Others also expect it will ultimately succeed.

"The administration has the influence over the Republican majority in the House and the Senate," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an Armed Services Committee member and a longtime supporter of base closing commissions. "It would be hard for them to resist that."

Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi said, "I'm going to vote against it, but I'm afraid a lot of people will vote for it, and I think it's misguided."

Past closings have cost taxpayers more than $13 billion in cleanups, he said, and the closings are unfair to military retirees who move to base towns largely to gain access to their promised lifetime health care.

Perhaps most important is the toll on patriotism when communities lose the "place where they took their kids on the Fourth of July," Taylor said.

"When those bases closed, those communities got betrayed, and in my opinion, they shrunk the constituency in this democracy for a strong national defense," he said.


On the Net:

Defense Department: www.dtic.mil/def/index.html

House Armed Services Committee: www.house.gov/hasc/