Lawmakers look after home military installations

With elections this fall and a round of base closing decisions coming in 2005, lawmakers are doing what they can to protect military installations in their states and districts.

Not even Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who faces a serious re-election challenge, can resist the attraction of local bases and the votes of people whose livelihoods depend on them.

With Ellsworth Air Force Base in his home state of South Dakota threatened by plans to retire most of the Air Force's B-1B bombers, Daschle filed several amendments to the just-passed Senate fiscal 2005 defense authorization bill to keep the bombers at the base.

One of his amendments would have prevented the Air Force from trimming its fleet of B-1B Lancer bombers below 77, while a second measure, offered on Daschle's behalf by Senate Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., would have added three B-1Bs to the fleet.

Although Daschle withdrew the proposals under pressure from Senate Republicans frustrated with the crush of about 240 amendments to the bill, he was able to secure $30 million in the fiscal 2005 Defense appropriations bill that passed the Senate Thursday.

A Senate aide said those funds, added to President Bush's $60 million budget request for the B-1B, would pay for radar upgrades and electronic data transfer systems for part of the fleet at both Ellsworth and Dyess air force bases in Texas.

"These modernizations help improve the B-1 fleet, which is important to Dyess, Ellsworth and the Air Force," the Senate aide said.

Ellsworth has become a huge campaign issue this election year, with Daschle's opponent-former Rep. John Thune, R-S.D.-recently taking a well-publicized tour of the base.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., have paid visits to the state, where they touted Ellsworth's bright future while campaigning respectively for Thune and Republican House nominee Larry Diedrich, who faces a rematch with newly elected South Dakota Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth.

While the House did not add any B-1 funding to the fiscal 2005 Defense appropriations bill, the House Armed Services Committee authorized $95.8 million for the necessary upgrades to 10 additional B-1s.

Daschle's attempts to save the B-1s have no doubt delighted longtime congressional observers who recall former California Republican Rep. Robert Dornan's successful campaign to revive the bomber early in the Reagan-era military buildup after it had been cancelled by former President Carter. Dornan's efforts won him the moniker of "B-1 Bob."

But other examples of "BRAC-proofing" are evident in the Senate defense authorization bill.

One such measure would prevent the Navy from deactivating its two sole reserve airborne early-warning squadrons, which happen to be based in Norfolk, Va.-home state of Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va.-and Atlanta.

While Norfolk arguably is not at risk, Naval Air Station Atlanta could be a target in the upcoming base closure and realignment round.

Last year, Georgia Sens. Zell Miller, a Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, authored a similar provision in the fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill that prevented the decommissioning of any aviation squadrons there until the Navy completed a study.

The House, too, appears to be bracing for base closures. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, garnered $12 million in additions for South Carolina's Shaw Air Force Base in the House version of the fiscal 2005 defense authorization bill, although House appropriators fulfilled only $5 million of the authorization for new military hardware at Shaw's Poinsett Range.

Other provisions in the bill include a $5 million addition for Naval Air Station North Island and $5 million for Edwards Air Force Base, both in California.

Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington received half-a-million in additions, and New Jersey's Ft. Monmouth garnered a $2 million increase for new communications infrastructure.

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