Commissioners keep some bases open despite Pentagon’s wishes

Liz Sidoti: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Bucking the Pentagon, a federal commission voted Wednesday to spare a submarine base in Connecticut and a shipyard straddling the Maine-New Hampshire border, preserving a major military presence in New England and 12,000 defense-related jobs.

On the first of at least two days of meetings, the base-closing panel agreed with proposals to shutter hundreds of small and large facilities in all corners of the country, including a major base at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, a naval air station in Georgia and an Army garrison in Michigan.

The recommendations will be sent to President Bush, who can accept them or reject them in their entirety. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan but has not taken that step in four previous rounds of closures.

If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.

The commission signed off on most of the Pentagon’s plans to close, shrink or expand Army and Navy facilities from coast to coast. It has yet to take up any Air Force proposals, including closing Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis and stripping aircraft from about two dozen Air National Guard facilities across the country.

The Pentagon proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the armed forces.

Since the Pentagon announced its proposal in May, commissioners had voiced concerns about several parts of it, including the estimate of how much money would be saved.

Altogether, the Commission voted on Wednesday to close 17 major military bases, including one that the Pentagon wanted to keep open. However, six major bases the Defense Department wanted to shutter got a reprieve from the panel.

In some of its first decisions, the Commission voted to keep open several major Army and Navy bases that military planners want to shut down, including the Portsmouth shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and the New London submarine base in Groton, Conn., two of the Navy’s oldest bases.

“Yahoo!” exclaimed Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. “Submarine base New London lives, and I think that it will live forever.”

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who urged the Commission to save the shipyard in Maine near the New Hampshire border, added: “This is a sweet victory.”

Congressional delegations, retired Navy officers and others had fiercely lobbied the commission to spare the two bases, arguing that the economic impact would be devastating and the region would be unprotected in the face of terrorist threats. Commissioners had the same concerns.

The survival of the two bases marked big wins for New England congressional delegations and governors. Even as the commission was voting, elected officials from those and other states — including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. — attended the hearing and served as visual reminders of their efforts.

Some analysts have said closing both the shipyard and the submarine base would devastate the economy along the coast from Maine to Rhode Island. Loss of the submarine base, which former President Carter, a dozen admirals and high-ranking Congress members opposed, would have cost about 8,000 jobs, and closing the shipyard would have cost 4,000, some estimated. Many more jobs at businesses that depend on the bases also were at risk.

The commission did, however, decide to close Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine, rather than drastically reduce forces there as the Pentagon wanted. Commissioners argued that savings could be realized more quickly if it were shut down altogether.

“They have proved they are not a rubber stamp,” said David Berteau, Pentagon official who oversaw base closings for the Pentagon in 1991 and 1993. “But we don’t know yet what the common theme is because they’re dealing with each of these on a case-by-case basis.”

Some key decisions commissioners made on Wednesday:

• Decided to keep open several major bases the Pentagon wanted to close, including the Naval Support Activity Corona in California, the Red River Army Depot in Texas and Naval Support Activity in New Orleans.

• Voted to retain two Navy bases it had considered shutting down — the Broadway Complex in San Diego, Calif., and the jet training base in Oceana, Va. In a highly unusual move, however, the commission added conditions to those decisions.

• Approved the closure of hundreds of Navy Reserve and Army Reserve and National Guard facilities in dozens of states, in favor of consolidating units at fewer locations.

• Added stipulations in a handful of closings, including that research under way at Fort Monmouth in connection with the war on terrorism won’t be disrupted.

Before voting started, Commission Chairman Anthony Principi said the task was especially difficult because Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s proposal included more than double the recommendations in the four previous rounds of base closings combined.

Principi said the Commission recognized that closing bases was necessary to save money and transform the military to meet new challenges.

“At the same time, we know that the decisions we reach will have a profound impact on the communities hosting our military installations, and more importantly, on the people who bring those communities to life,” he said.