By Liz Sidoti: The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The military base closings that the Pentagon and a commission have recommended are likely to be approved by President Bush and Congress, leaving communities around the country with little hope that targeted facilities will be spared.
Bush is now focused on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast rather than on base closures, analysts said. Scrapping the closure process now — after a nine-member commission has completed its review of the Pentagon plan — could leave him open to criticism when his poll numbers already are at a low point for his presidency.
“The president has got much bigger issues to worry about right now,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.
Congress, too, is consumed with other priorities. And a GOP-led effort in the Senate to derail the process — one that Republican leaders privately feared could embarrass them — has largely fizzled out.
The commission that changed parts of the Pentagon plan last month denied politics played a role in any of its decisions, even as it chose to keep open bases in the home states of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and other senators leading the opposition. That all but eliminated the possibility of congressional intervention. The vast majority of House members overwhelmingly support this round of closures and consolidations, the first in a decade.
After five months of work, the commission must send its final report to the president by Thursday. He can accept it, kill it or, by Sept. 23, send it back to the panel for more changes. Congress has 45 days from the day it receives the report from the president to pass a joint resolution rejecting it in its entirety or it becomes law. Lawmakers have never rejected reports in previous base-closing rounds.
Last month, the commission largely endorsed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s vision to restructure the domestic network of military bases to save billions of dollars over the next two decades and streamline the Army, Navy and Air Force.
But the panel also chose to keep open several major bases against the Pentagon’s wishes, including a shipyard in Kittery, Maine, a submarine base in Groton, Conn., and Air Force bases in South Dakota and New Mexico.
Within days, Rumsfeld expressed reservations about such high-profile changes and said he was uncertain whether he would recommend that the president accept the proposed closures as modified by the commission. However, Rumsfeld also noted that the commission signed off on the majority of the Pentagon’s recommendations.
That, analysts said, lessens the chance that the White House will reject the plan.
“Even though they didn’t get everything they wanted, they got a lot of what they wanted,” said Christopher Hellman, a base-closing expert at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a national security policy group.
Plus, analysts said, this may be the last chance the White House and Pentagon have to save money by shuttering bases because Congress probably will resist signing off on another round of closures, given the large amount of heartache lawmakers now are experiencing.
Congress reluctantly authorized this round of closures only after the White House threatened to veto an entire defense bill if it didn’t give the Pentagon the go-ahead. Lawmakers have griped and vowed to stop the closures ever since.
The House never came close to passing measures to delay or kill the process. But GOP-sponsored legislation in the Republican-led Senate was gaining steam just before Congress left for its summer break.
Thune sponsored the legislation after the Pentagon announced in May that it wanted to close Ellsworth Air Force Base in his home state of South Dakota. He then secured the backing of other lawmakers, including several more Republicans, whose states also were slated to lose bases.
Then, the commission voted last month to reject Pentagon plans to close the South Dakota base, as well as major facilities in home states of Thune’s GOP co-sponsors. “The biggest source of opposition has been mollified,” Thompson said.
Despite the victory, Thune said he has not yet decided whether to pull his legislation that would have delayed the closures. Still, he allowed, “I think a lot of the co-sponsors of it probably are less inclined because of the commission’s actions.”
Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who long has worked to derail the base-closing process, said he had told the president he should reject the commission’s final report, which calls for base closings — and, hence, job losses — in Mississippi.
Lott has often clashed with Bush, but he has the president’s ear right now, given that Mississippi — including Lott’s Gulf-shore home — was crushed by Hurricane Katrina. Still, chances are slim that the president will heed his advice on base closures.