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The Buffalo News May 16, 2005

Congress may feel heat to reject base closings

The proposed restructuring of military bases will put a lot of members of Congress on the spot, including some key Republican lawmakers, and increase the pressure to abandon the plan.

By Jerry Zremski

WASHINGTON - Viewed through a red-state, blue-state prism, the Pentagon's proposed restructuring of American military bases looks like pork barrel politics.

States that voted last fall for President Bush would gain 11,862 jobs, while states that went for his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, would lose 24,259.

But upon closer inspection, base closure experts say, the plan doesn't look political. The plan would expand big, multiuse bases in states with the land to accommodate them, which happens to be in the Republican-dominated South and West.

Perhaps more importantly, the plan aims to close several smaller bases like the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, angering more politicians than any prior round of base closures. That's why the odds of Congress rejecting the recommendations might be higher than previous occasions.

"The wild card here is the enormous number of changes in the Army and Air National Guard and Reserves," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online source of defense information. "It affects a lot of congressional districts."

That's important for one reason. Once the Base Realignment and Closure Commission revises Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations, and then Bush either accepts or rejects them, Congress will have one last chance to kill the plan.

Under the proposal released Friday, 16 states and the District of Columbia would lose more jobs than New York, which would see an overall loss of 1,071 civilian and military positions.

Connecticut would lose the most jobs - 8,586 - due to the proposed closure of the New London Submarine Base. Maine ranks second, losing a Navy shipyard and air station and 6,938 jobs. And the proposed closure of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center would cost 6,496 jobs in Washington, D.C.

Political obstacles

The base closure plan does face some political obstacles. It could cause problems for three key Republican figures: Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

Santorum, the third-ranking Republican leader in the Senate, faces a brutal re-election campaign next year against Democrat Robert Casey Jr., son of a popular governor. And Santorum may not have helped himself in April when he told the Allentown Morning Call that the Willow Grove Naval Air Station was "in the firing line" because of nearby development. Willow Grove made the base closure list.

Meanwhile, Lott, the former Senate minority leader, takes pride in his defense of the Pascagoula Naval Station which is now on the closure list, too.

And Thune finds himself in an especially delicate spot. Last fall, he defeated Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle in part by promising that, as a Republican at a time of GOP dominance, he would able to protect Ellsworth Air Force Base. But it didn't work out that way: Ellsworth now stands to lose all of its 3,852 jobs.

"We need to be saving"

Indeed, there is some talk in Congress of voting down the base-closure proposals because it would be better for the military to decide first on its plan to close bases overseas.

"I think that's just smoke," said Christopher Hellman, a base closure expert at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Nevertheless, the base-closure recommendations will put a lot of members of Congress on the spot. Some 33 major bases would be closed and 29 others realigned. Meanwhile, scores of smaller Guard and Reserve facilities would be closed in practically every corner of the country.

That might increase the pressure to abandon the plan.

"But it won't be enough to push it over the edge," Hellman said.

While affecting far more Guard and Reserve units than previous base-closing plans, this round also might divide state congressional delegations.

In Virginia, the plan calls for the elimination of Fort Eustis in southeast Virginia but huge increases in Navy facilities only a few miles away. And in Texas, Fort Bliss and Fort Sam Houston would grow by leaps and bounds, while a major Army depot would close, along with the Ingleside Naval Station.

Add it all up, and it looks as if Rumsfeld and his aides "tried to take politics out of it as best as they could," said Anthony Marken, vice president of military installations for ML Strategies, who works to redevelop closed bases nationwide.

Politics will intrude, now that the base-closure recommendations are part of public debate, but Marken doesn't expect Congress to overturn them.

"They'll try to do all kinds of things to stop (the base closure plan)," he said, "but in all fairness, we need to be saving the money."

And that amounts to $48.8 billion over 20 years.

 


Copyright 2005, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.