Q&A: Senator Bingaman discusses BRAC, Iraq, and more

Freedom Newspapers

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was in Clovis and Portales on Thursday and was on hand for a briefing at Clovis Community College with Air Force officials. The Air Force team visited the region for four days to begin the process of finding a new mission for Cannon Air Force Base.
Bingaman, who said he will run for a fifth term next November, has been in the Senate since 1983.
He sat down with staff from the Clovis News Journal and Portales News Tribune to answer questions on Thursday evening.

Freedom: As you understand it, what is the mission of the visiting Air Force team?
Bingaman: I think they are out here gathering all the facts that they can. They are going to take those back and they’ve got some kind of internal process that I am not acquainted with. But I don’t think they are trying to be secretive about it. It’s a sort of matching of the characteristics of this base and what we have here up with what their needs will be looking forward 10 or 20 years, not only in the Air Force but across the military. That’s what they say they are doing. I have no reason to doubt them.

Who will make the final decision as to the future of Cannon?
This general (Brig. Gen. Ron Ladnier) is going to be making recommendations, he and his team, to the secretary of the Air Force and to the secretary of defense. … He has taken that responsibility and said “We will come up with our best conclusion on this and there it will be.”

Do you know if this team will also be assessing other bases?
I think just Cannon. This is the one base put in this unusual category of enclave status. And I think that their mandates, the one we put in the language we added to the Defense Appropriations Bill and the language that was in the BRAC report, were specific to Cannon.

The Defense Appropriations Bill includes language that would keep all personnel and assets, including F-16s, at Cannon Air Force Base until a new mission is found for the base. What’s the process for getting the bill out of the joint committee it’s in now?
My understanding is the hangup is the (Arizona Sen. John) McCain amendment to ensure no additional torture or inhuman treatment occur of prisoners. And I think the Pentagon, particularly Vice President Cheney and the administration are strongly opposed to that amendment. And that is what has held up a meeting of the conference. In fact they haven’t appointed conferees and they have not allowed the conference to meet yet. But the staff has been working out the disagreements between the House and the Senate and, as I understand it, everything else is pretty much resolved.

What is the time frame for the bill?
We go back into session on (Dec. 12). We’re supposed to vote on the morning of the 14th, which is Wednesday and at that time we are supposed to have ready for voting the Defense Appropriations Bill, the Labor Health and Human Service Appropriations Bill. Those are the two big appropriations bills we haven’t yet passed.

How often will we see the Air Force team in this area, and is it possible that other government agencies will visit Clovis or Portales in regard to Cannon’s mission-finding effort?
I don’t know yet. I don’t know if they know yet. I would think they probably will not have a lot more sort of formal visits like this was. … I think they may send members of the team to run down additional facts as necessary, and they may invite others somewhere else in the government to come. But I don’t know that. That’s all speculation.

Do you have any sense of the multiple-mission discussions with the Army or any discussion with Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about that?
Just what the general said (on Thursday) and what we’ve heard there in Washington, which is that they understand that they are to look DOD-wide in trying to identify a mission or missions for Cannon.

What are the issues that will consume you in the rest of this congressional session and on into next year that affect eastern New Mexico?
There are an awful lot of issues that we are trying to make some progress on that affect eastern New Mexico in a general way. The one that is specific to eastern New Mexico that we are trying to make real progress on is the Ute Water Project — to get that authorized and begin the process of putting some money into that.

I think that that is a very important project for this part of the state. It’s one that I think Sen. Domenici agrees is important. We’ve been working with your (Clovis and Portales mayors) and this whole area government here to get that into a form where we can see it enacted. As I consider it, that’s a top priority.

We’re beginning — although it won’t be concluded until 2006 — to see efforts go forth to design a new farm bill, which will have a big impact of course because this part of the state is so involved with agriculture. There are some provisions we were able to get into the farm bill last time that I would like to see expanded. One of them relates to the Ogallala Aquifer. You know, trying to have some fed money available to assist farmers who wanted to shift to more water efficient systems of irrigation. That, I think, needs to be a priority.

How would you assist those farmers?
Pay part of the cost of moving to drip irrigation, moving from the large systems that are currently in place over to the drip irrigation. … There are a lot of things that can be done to cut down on the amount of water needed to — required to — maintain agriculture in this part of the state; not just in this part of the state, but this part of the country.

Is it realistic to expect the federal government to fund 80 percent of the Ute Water Project, as local government officials have suggested?
It’s more than the administration wants. It is not a bigger percentage than the Congress has approved in some other major water projects up in North Dakota and Iowa and some of those areas. So we are basically saying we should get the same kind of treatment Congress has agreed to give some of these other areas. But whether we can prevail on that, I don’t know.

What would convince Congress to fund the majority of the project?
I think they mainly want to hear — and they want to hear this from the administration as much as from anyone else — that this is a viable option, that the local share is going to be available, and that the project can be built for what it is estimated to cost, and that it will meet the needs, and that the needs are real.

Can you talk about issues related to Iraq? What is your sense of the outcome in Iraq?
I think it is unfortunate the outcome is not going to be an easy one. I think it is a very expensive proposition that we are involved in. … I hope that we are able to begin bringing some troops home as early as next year but we clearly can’t cut and run. We have to be sure the (Iraqi) government elected (last) month is able to function, is able to stay in power, is able to stabilize the situation sufficiently. And so our troop presence is going to be required at some level for some substantial period of time to do that, I fear.

How do we create a vision for our country amid continuous military conflicts?
I think we need to lean heavily on diplomacy. We need to try and find ways to lead in (all areas), but recognize it is only going to work if we have involvement and active participation from a bunch of other allies. I think that is the model we oughta get back to. We are getting back to it to some extent. I think Condelezza Rice deserves some credit. In the short time she has been there as secretary of state, she moved us in that direction. I compliment her for that, but we still have a long way to go.

Where do you stand on border security issues and immigration issues?
Clearly, our ability to control the border has been shown to be somewhat bankrupt. We are incapable of adequately controlling the border today. There are large numbers of undocumented, illegal aliens coming into the country. There’s a great deal of illegal activity, drug activity and other types of activity along the border that we are not able to deal with effectively. So that needs to be dealt with. …
I was glad to hear the president talk about the absurdity of this capture and release policy we’ve got. I’ve been screaming about that for some time… Unfortunately there is a little bit of disconnect between what the president says and what’s been requested of us (lawmakers).

What do you suggest we do about illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for long periods of time?
I stand that you’ve gotta have something that is reality based, and the reality is many of these people have been here five, 10, 15, 20 years.
The president’s proposal is “we’ll say if a person is willing to come out of the shadows, work for six years, leave the country for a year, go back to his or her home country, then they can apply to come back and get legal residency.”
I don’t know if that’s very reality based for someone who’s lived here for 10 or 20 years. … If you want something that does cause people to come out of the shadows, and say “I’m here, I’m illegal,” … you’ve got to come up with something a little different than that.

What do you think the outcome of the latest battle for the Supreme Court seat will turn on?
What I think is the relevant question there is, is the current majority or thinking of the court going to change significantly with the substitution of Justice (Samuel) Alito with Justice O’Connor. If it is, then I think that is a cause for concern on my part and the part of a lot of people. I think that there have been a lot of 5-4 decisions where Justice O’Connor has been part of the majority, and I think the real question is would Justice Alito be part of that same majority or not. I don’t know. That’s what I think will be the focus of these hearings in January.

What do you think about Judge Alito?
I met with Judge Alito … and he is a very smart, impressive, obviously highly respected judge. There is no question about all of that. …
Frankly, I didn’t cross examine him on a whole series of issues. I asked him his views on some particular cases related to the commerce clause, in particular. And he had good answers, but I spent maybe 25 minutes with him.

Did you discuss the abortion issue?
The day that I met with him was the day that this job application had been revealed. I think the Washington Post or the Washington Times had this job application that he had submitted when he was applying to work in the Justice Department. It said … basically that he had taken pride in having advocated that the Constitution did not contain in it any right for a woman to seek an abortion. And I asked him about that.
And he said, number one, that it was 20 years ago, it was 1985. And he said, number two, it was a job application. And he said, number three, as a judge, now he has been involved in participating in several cases that involved abortion, and he thought that a much fairer and appropriate way to judge his position on abortion and a woman’s right to privacy, or anyone’s right to privacy … was to read those cases and see where he came down on those cases. So that was his answer, and I didn’t press him any further on it.

Do you have any predictions for the next presidential campaign?
I have no idea. I think it’s premature for me to pick sides … you know Bill (Richardson) is running for re-election as governor, I am running for the Senate, and once we get through that election we will see where things are. …
If John Kerry runs again he starts with a certain base of support — name recognition and all the rest, which has to be factored in. Hillary Clinton starts with a base of support and name recognition that has to be factored in. I don’t think there is anybody that would dispute either one of those. There are a lot of other very capable people who are being rumored to want to run, but they’re going to have to build that support and that name recognition to get to that level. Some of them are very attractive candidates.

Do you think Bill Richardson has sufficient name recognition yet?
I don’t think anybody has the name recognition until they actually do it. Until you have been president or vice president or run for one of those jobs, I don’t think you have the name recognition nationally. … I would be surprised if any of the candidates would find that same lead (as Clinton or Kerry).

How about possible Republican presidential candidates?
I think John McCain seems still to have hopes of being the candidate. He’s well known. He’s run for president on the Republican side. He did very well in the primaries before. He’s got a very strong following. I just don’t know. There are a whole lot of people in the Senate who seem to think they are potential candidates.

Could McCain have any impact on the future of Cannon?
I don’t think so. I don’t think McCain will involve himself in any way at this stage. I think clearly there was some basis for thinking he tried to influence the early decision because he was looking out for Luke (Air Force Base) and the various facilities in Arizona. But I see no reason why he would involve himself in this process (of finding a new mission for Cannon). You could maybe speculate out a scenario where they identified a mission that involved a substantial reduction in some activity in Arizona that would get his attention. But I have no reason to think they will come up with that as a recommendation.