The Senate narrowly approved a new round of military base closings Tuesday, even as critics warned that more bases might be needed to fight the new war on terrorism.
On a 53-47 vote, the Senate agreed to authorize an independent commission to recommend bases for closure in 2003.
The Pentagon is pushing for more base closures, saying such a move ultimately would save $3.5 billion a year. Defense officials have said as many as 25 percent of all domestic military facilities are no longer needed.
The effort to conduct the first round of base closures since 1995 faces formidable opposition, however.
The Senate vote came as part of a $343 billion defense authorization bill for the fiscal year that begins Monday. The House on Tuesday night overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill, but the House measure intentionally left out any mention of base closings. Many lawmakers are eager to protect jobs in their districts and question the savings claimed by the Pentagon in closing bases.
The issue will be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee in the next few weeks.
Even in the Senate, which traditionally is more receptive to base closings, support for the measure is thin, as Tuesday's vote showed.
Opponents appeared emboldened by the new war on terrorism. Many argued the timing is wrong for a new round of closures as U.S. troops go off to war and a new strategy for homeland defense has yet to take shape.
"Because of this uncertainty, it is unwise to begin hacking away at our military infrastructure," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who led the charge to delete the base-closure provision from the 2002 defense authorization measure.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bunning said, "The landscape for me and others has changed from one of efficiency to one of security."
But those who advocate closing bases say the terrorist attacks only make the need to shut some facilities more urgent.
"In the wake of the terrible events of Sept. 11, the imperative to convert excess capacity into war-fighting ability is enhanced, not diminished," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote senators.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the Senate Armed Services Committee's ranking Republican, helped lead the fight to authorize another closure round, saying the cost savings will be critical to transform the military for the 21st Century.
At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Rumsfeld said he was pleased by the Senate vote, adding, "There's no question but that we do need to transform the military."
Under the Senate plan, an independent commission would be formed to review all domestic bases, similar to the process used in the four previous rounds from 1988 to 1995. The commission would recommend a list of bases to close, which Congress and the president could then approve or reject in a package. The list, however, could not be amended.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said a closure effort now is ill-timed.
"I can't think of a more destructive thing to do to our economy at this point," he said.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading advocate proponent of base closings, said many military communities have fared better after opening up underused bases to the private sector.
Facing the advent of the new fiscal year, the Senate by voice vote also passed a resolution giving Congress until Oct. 16 to pass spending bills needed to keep federal operations running.
The House approved an identical measure Monday.
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