Lawmakers may seek to stall base closure process

As the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission gets down to work Tuesday, opponents of the new round of base closings are expected to use the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill to attempt to stall or upset the process, according to congressional sources.

Potential tactics to thwart the commission include repealing the section of law that authorizes the 2005 base-closing round. Lawmakers also could use the authorization bill to change or delay any base-closing steps along the way, although President Bush has threatened to veto past authorization bills to try to prevent that approach.

"It may be difficult at this point to amend the BRAC process," said a spokeswoman for House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo. In addition to a possible veto, she said, "Historically, the Senate has been supportive of BRAC."

Still, "since BRAC is a creation of Congress, Congress can change the rules under which BRAC is carried out," said Daniel Else, a national defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service. "During previous sessions, some members of Congress have contemplated proposing significant changes to the BRAC process, such as delaying its effects for up to two years, but so sweeping a change has not yet been enacted."

Whether BRAC opponents will succeed this time around and specifically what tactics they will employ remain to be seen. But the fight over base closings appears to be far from over.

"I think it's going to be very, very interesting," said House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee ranking member Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas. The longtime opponent of this base-closing round said he has not decided whether he will try to stop the process, but he assumes there will be arguments in both the House and the Senate to do just that.

The nine-member commission officially starts work Tuesday, at a hearing on Capitol Hill. Until now, the process has been in the hands of senior Pentagon officials, who will keep their findings under wraps until they deliver them to Congress next week.

The commission will analyze the Pentagon list before submitting its own recommendations to the White House on Sept. 8. Historically, base-closing commissions have endorsed most of the Pentagon's decisions, which are expected to save the department $7 billion annually.

Originally, the House Armed Services Committee, which might stand to be the biggest barrier to the BRAC process, was scheduled to mark up its version of the 2005 defense authorization bill in early May. But a schedule change bumped full-committee hearings to May 18, giving lawmakers representing districts that are home to the bases on the Pentagon list more time to plot their strategies before budget discussions begin.

"The have-nots will be in a must-defend situation on pain of death because they can't afford to have their bases closed," said a congressional aide. "They will do everything they can to keep [bases] open through any vehicle going through."

But analysts were quick to point out that stalling attempts so far have been largely unsuccessful. Most recently, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., tried to slow the process by placing a hold on the nomination of commission Chairman Anthony Principi. Bush ultimately bypassed the Senate, making recess appointments for Principi and the eight other commissioners.

"Would I be surprised if they [tried to stall the base-closing process]? I think I would not," said Ken Beeks, a vice president at Business Executives for National Security, a group that supports base closings. "Do I think it will work? No. But I wouldn't put it past them."

The most effective way to get a base off the Pentagon's list still might be the tried-and-true method of providing commissioners with in-depth analysis of how individual installations fit into the military's future plans, said Paul Hirsch, a member of the 1991 commission and a BRAC lobbyist for Madison Government Affairs.

"The process is insulated from individual members of Congress trying to make efforts to save their base," Hirsch said. "At this point, once that list comes out, that list is out."

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