McCain, Levin push base-closing plan

McCain, Levin push base-closing plan

A proposal by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., to resume the national military base-closing process undergoes its first, and possibly only, test this week, when the Senate Armed Services Committee begins marking up the fiscal 2000 defense authorization bill.

McCain and Levin want to launch two new rounds of the independent, congressionally chartered Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, which would review every domestic military base and submit a list of shutdown candidates to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote.

The Defense Department for decades maintained a network of bases that was virtually impervious to attack by would-be budget cutters. Anxious to protect their own local air field or proving ground, few members of Congress were willing to point a bayonet at a colleague's base.

But in the post-Cold War era, many at the Defense Department, and some in Congress, have come to see the elimination of surplus installations as the surest way to save money for more critical defense needs. "Another round of BRAC is no certainty, but most people concede there is an infrastructure surplus," commented one defense consultant.

Since 1988, four rounds of BRAC have shuttered bases from coast to coast and produced savings of $14.5 billion, according to the DOD. The Pentagon says these efforts will deliver additional savings of $5.7 billion per year after 2001.

The DOD and congressional supporters propose holding two more rounds over the next few years, claiming savings of about $3 billion per year.

Still, despite the active support of Defense Secretary Cohen, who served on the Armed Services panel when he represented Maine in the Senate, and a near-universal desire to find new money in the federal budget, McCain and Levin face an uphill fight.

"It's the wrong time, wrong message," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, an Armed Services member. "We're fully engaged in a military conflict, which makes it more difficult to do. ... So far, the post-Cold War world has been unpredictable, so we need to be very careful about what kind of infrastructure we draw down. I say let's finish the previous rounds [of base shutdowns] and then review proposals for another round."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also has issued statements opposing a new round of base closings. Sources said Lott has indicated he might prevent the defense authorization bill from coming to the floor if it includes the McCain-Levin proposal.

Officials in Lott's office could not be reached for comment late last week.

Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner's office declined to comment on the McCain-Levin proposal, but during a hearing in March, Warner expressed skepticism about authorizing another round. Subsequently, Warner has engaged in a series of talks with Pentagon officials about the need for additional base closings, according to published reports.

Warner's home state of Virginia has fared well under previous BRAC rounds, and Democratic Sen. Charles Robb, the state's junior senator, has been a supporter of more base closings.

While Armed Services Committee members and observers were hesitant to predict the outcome of this week's expected committee vote, all agreed the vote would be close and many suggested the odds were running against McCain and Levin.

"We anticipate a decent fight on it," said a McCain aide. "The outcome right now is unpredictable."

The prospects for BRAC legislation are, if anything, less promising in the House, where Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C., opposes the idea.

Spence "is not supportive for a variety of reasons, including the politicization the last time around and the fact that it doesn't save any money in the short-term, in fact, it costs billions upfront," a spokesman said.

With Spence, Military Installations and Facilities Subcommittee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., Armed Services ranking member Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and subcommittee ranking member Gene Taylor, D-Miss., opposed to the BRAC proposal submitted by the Clinton administration, "it's chances of being approved during [House] committee markup [of the defense bill] are zero," said a Democratic source.

It is unclear whether a BRAC proposal will even be offered during the House Armed Services markup. And once the authorization bill reaches the floor, the Democratic source noted, "Members don't really want to do something in direct contravention of the Armed Services chairman."

House Armed Services subcommittee markup of the authorization bill is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, while full committee markup is expected next week.

BRAC legislation probably must win approval in the Senate before it would have any chance in the House, according to the House Democratic source. If the Senate did approve BRAC language, the issue would be hashed out by a conference committee and the source suggested "some version" of BRAC could emerge.

McCain and Levin's plan resembles previous BRAC legislation and this year's administration proposal with three important exceptions.

First, the measure requires the secretary of Defense to accept and review comments by affected communities. "It legislates that communities be heard at an early stage," according to the McCain staffer.

Second, while the Clinton proposal would mandate rounds in 2001 and 2005, McCain-Levin crunches the process into 2001 and 2003. The important fact, Hill sources said, is that Clinton will not be the president who initiates the process or selects the commissioners for the next panel.

The previous BRAC statute directed that the president kick things off with the selection of commissioners in January. For the proposed 2001 and 2003 rounds, McCain-Levin pushes that date back to March, to ensure the responsibility falls to Clinton's successor.

Supporters of a new BRAC round hope this will mollify opponents who say Clinton subverted the process in 1995, when the administration moved to rescue BRAC-targeted bases in California and Texas. Clinton announced a plan for "privatization in place" at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas and McClellan in California, in which those military depots would be privatized but the work would stay there.

The move was widely interpreted as driven by the president's re-election calculations and infuriated many members of Congress. However, supporters of the BRAC process point out that "privatization in place" never actually transpired at Kelly or McClellan, both of which lost out in a subsequent competitive bidding process.

"This is not especially a lack of confidence in Clinton," the McCain staffer said of the date change, "but you just don't want a president picking a commission and then leaving office. ... The president who will be in office while the commission is under way ought to be the one who picks the commissioners."

The third change, another bit of fallout from 1995, is explicit language stating that only the commission can approve a "privatization in place" proposal. "Under our proposal, you can't do something like that unless the commission specifically orders you to do so," said the McCain staffer. "That's a direct response to the California-Texas experience."

The bill's sponsors also discussed completing the consolidation of U.S. bases in one massive BRAC finale, rather than holding two more rounds, sources said. But they ultimately rejected that plan as politically infeasible.

"The idea had been to do just one more round so as not to put people through this two more times," said the McCain staffer. "But two is more realistic. DOD wants to close quite a few facilities, it would've been too much for one round."

Senate sources said another idea was to authorize a "qualified BRAC," meaning the legislation would specify categories of bases to be targeted, and which bases would be exempt.

"That could make some senators more willing to support the proposal than if we put every base on the chopping block," said one Senate source.

However, McCain "feels strongly that you can't do a `qualified BRAC,'" according to McCain's aide. "Everyone has an interest in doing this as painlessly as possible, but how do you do that without compromising fairness and quality?"

Late last week, McCain's aide said there were no negotiations taking place about making such a change to the McCain-Levin proposal. Instead, the two senators were prepared to take their chances when full committee markup begins Wednesday on the authorization bill.