WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to allow the first round of U.S. military base closures and consolidations in a decade, clearing the way for facilities across the country to start shutting their doors as early as next month
In a 324-85 vote, the House refused to veto the final report of the 2005 base-closing commission, meaning the report seems all but certain to become law in mid-November. Targeted facilities then would have six years to close their doors and shift forces as required under the report.
Both the House and Senate must pass resolutions rejecting the report to stop the Pentagon's sweeping restructuring of its far-flung domestic base network. But, as expected, the House effort by Rep. Ray LaHood (search), R-Ill., failed. And there's no similar attempt underway in the Senate.
Opposition to closing bases dropped steadily in both chambers as the nine-member commission changed parts of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's original recommendations.
The panel sent President Bush its final report in September. He signed off on it and sent it to Congress on Sept. 15. That began a 45-legislative day period for Congress to reject the report.
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.
LaHood, whose district includes a base in Springfield, Ill., that is to lose 15 National Guard (search) fighter jets, urged his colleagues to vote to reject the report "in support of those that are citizen soldiers who come from those communities."
Closing bases during wartime, he said, "is the wrong message to send."
But Rep. Duncan Hunter (search), R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who supports closing bases, said: "these issues have been thoroughly discussed and debated."
The Pentagon, the White House and GOP congressional leaders -- and even many Democrats -- contend that eliminating extra space will free up money that could be used instead to improve the United States' fighting capabilities, and help reposition U.S. forces to face current and future threats.
In a statement, the Bush administration said that halting the round of base closings now "would harm U.S. national security interests by preventing improvements designed to address the new demands of war against extremists and other 21st century needs."
Overall, the report calls for closing 22 major military bases and reconfiguring an additional 33. Hundreds of smaller facilities from coast to coast also will close, shrink or grow, under a plan that the commission says will mean annual savings of $4.2 billion.
Rumsfeld had recommended closing 33 major bases and realigning 29 others, but the commission made changes even as it approved most of the 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.
The commission also came up with its own shake-up of Air National Guard units, choosing not to endorse a Pentagon plan that drew heavy opposition from governors.
Taken together, those changes mollified lawmakers who had lobbied fiercely for the panel to spare their facilities. Commissioners denied that politics played a role in their decisions.