WASHINGTON – A plan to close and reconfigure hundreds of military bases (search) is sailing through Congress, on track to take effect next month in a blow to communities hoping for an eleventh-hour reprieve.
In a long-shot attempt to halt the first round of base closings in a decade, the House planned a vote Thursday on a proposal to reject the final report of the 2005 base-closing commission. Even base-closing opponents considered the effort certain to fail, like Congress' attempts to stop the four previous rounds.
To kill the process, the Senate also would have to veto the week of November.
"I know that this is an uphill battle," said Rep. Ray LaHood (search), R-Ill. "I've been around long enough to know we'll be lucky to get 100 votes" in the 435-member House.
Sen. John Thune (search), R-S.D., who led early opposition in the Senate after the Pentagon proposed closing an Air Force base in his state, said the House vote would put the epitaph on a dead issue.
"Unless the House in some miraculous way finds the votes to overturn the BRAC decisions, I think it's pretty much a done deal, and I think most people over here view it that way," Thune said.
Congressional critics and many local officials fear the impact of base closures on their area economies — and on their political futures. They argue that the United States should not restructure military bases while the U.S. military is engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is the wrong message to send while we are at war," said LaHood, whose district includes a base in Springfield, Ill., that is to lose 15 National Guard fighter jets.
But the Pentagon, the White House and GOP congressional leaders dismiss that argument. They contend that eliminating extra space will free up money that could be used instead to improve the United States' fighting capabilities.
Military analysts agree. They say that this may be the last chance the Pentagon has to save money by shuttering bases because Congress likely will resist approving another round of closures given the pain this one caused.
The nine-member commission reviewing the plan by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) to restructure the U.S. domestic base network sent President Bush the report in September. It called for closing 22 major military bases and reconfiguring another 33. Hundreds of smaller facilities from coast to coast also will close, shrink or grow.
The commission said the plan would mean annual savings of $4.2 billion, compared with $5.4 billion a year under the Pentagon's original plan.
Rumsfeld had recommended closing 33 major bases and realigning 29 others, but the commission made changes even as it signed off on most of the sweeping plan. In the biggest decisions, the commission voted in August to keep open a historic shipyard in Kittery, Maine, a submarine base in Groton, Conn., and Air Force bases in New Mexico and South Dakota.
Lawmakers representing those states, including Thune, had waged fierce lobbying campaigns to get the panel to spare their facilities. Commissioners denied politics played a role in their decisions.
The panel also crafted its own shake-up of Air National Guard units across the country, choosing not to endorse a Pentagon plan that drew heavy opposition from state governors and was arguably the most contentious issue in the round of base closures.
"Once the commission removed so many bases from the list, they not only caused individual members to reverse their parochial positions, they also removed the concern that the Pentagon messed up the process so badly that it was fundamentally flawed," Berteau said. "They also removed the view that the commission was just a rubber stamp."
As a result, he said, wide-scale opposition in Congress to the plan dropped.
The president signed off on the report and sent it to Congress on Sept. 15. That triggered a 45-legislative day window for the report to become law unless both chambers pass a resolution killing the process.
Congress authorized this round of closures after the White House threatened to veto an entire defense spending bill if the Pentagon did not get the go-ahead.
Since then, the House has consistently supported closing bases.
An early effort to derail the closures by several GOP senators whose bases were originally slated for closure fizzled out when the base closing commission spared their facilities.