Rumsfeld ruffles Hill with base closings, equipment cuts

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld learned how hard it can be to make even small changes in defense programs and structures when he presented his $329 billion defense budget to Congress Thursday.

In his sessions with the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Rumsfeld encountered angry opposition to the proposal to cut 33 B-1B bombers from the Air National Guard, and milder but still determined objections to his pitch for additional base closings, privatization of military commissaries and some maintenance depot work and a relatively small change in the Davis-Bacon requirement to pay union wages on government contracts.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., got visibly angry and shouted at the Defense Secretary for revealing the plan to retire B-1s from the Kansas, Georgia and Idaho Air Guard in the budget without any prior consultation with the affected lawmakers.

"This is not the way this should happen," he shouted.

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., protested in calmer but equally strong terms, as had Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., during the earlier session with the House panel.

Rumsfeld apologized for the lack of consultation, noting that the decision was made by the Air Force, which was working to prevent any loss of guard positions from the move.

Rumsfeld said the proposals were among efficiencies he is seeking to save billions of dollars for more urgent defense needs.

If the Pentagon is given what he called "greater freedom to manage," the Defense Secretary suggested the department could reduce its operating expenses by 5 percent, freeing up about $15 billion a year.

That money could help buy the additional ships, aircraft, precision weapons and other equipment needed to modernize the armed services and to improve their work facilities and housing, Rumsfeld told the committees.

Additional billions could be saved by other efficiency efforts in defense organization and management, including turning the military run supermarkets over to commercial firms and raising the threshold for contracts that must comply with the Davis-Bacon union wage requirements from $2,000 to $1 million.

The size of the overall defense spending increase drew mainly critical reviews by members of the House Armed Services Committees in the morning hearing.

A number of members from both parties said they were disappointed with the $18.4 billion increase in the placeholder budget left by the Clinton administration. A lot of the concern was focused on the actual decrease in weapons procurement funding, especially the shipbuilding account.

And there were a number of protests from Democrats over the $3 billion boost for national missile defense.

Rumsfeld the actual size of the budget would be shaped by the ongoing defense reviews. But just to pay for existing programs and forces plus inflation would take $346 billion, he said.

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