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Revised Plan for McClellan Base Sent to Clinton

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Pentagon is sending President Clinton a revised plan for saving some of the jobs that would be lost through the closure of McClellan Air Force Base by transferring a portion of the aircraft maintenance work to private firms, Administration officials said Sunday.

The proposal, which was worked out after a weekend of negotiations between the White House and the Defense Department, would attempt to accomplish the transition gradually, during the four or five years that it is expected to take for the Sacramento-area installation to be shut down.

There was no immediate estimate of how many of the 11,000 civilian jobs in jeopardy could be saved under the new proposal. As late as Saturday, however, officials were hopeful that about 4,000 positions could be retained.

Unlike a previous version of the plan, this one would not require formal approval from the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, the independent panel that has recommended that McClellan be closed as part of a nationwide round of base closings.

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Alan J. Dixon, the former Democratic senator from Illinois who heads the base-closing commission, already has said publicly that “privatizing” the maintenance work now being done at McClellan would not fly in the face of the panel’s recommendation and has sent a letter to the Pentagon restating that.

“The language [in the commission’s recommendations] already allows them to privatize,” Dixon told The Times in a telephone interview Sunday.

Administration officials cautioned that, for all the weekend’s deliberations, it was not yet certain that Clinton would adopt the Pentagon proposal. But they said that if everything seems to be in order, he could act as early as today.

Under the plan, Clinton would accept the base-closing commission’s recommendations for closing McClellan and dozens of other military installations, sending the panel’s list of proposed closures to Congress, which would also be faced with approving or rejecting the entire list.

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The plan is designed to enable the President to at least appear to be helping the California economy while stopping short of intervening in the independent base-closing process. That process was set up by Congress and the White House to protect the procedure from political influence.

If Clinton rejected the commission’s recommendations, he would be the first President in four successive rounds of base closings to do so. Republicans already have begun criticizing him for politicizing the process merely by considering whether to take additional action.

At the same time, political strategists concede that Clinton has few other options beyond the one being proposed by the Pentagon if he wants to be viewed as helping California. Some White House officials contend the President must act or risk losing the state’s 54 electoral votes in 1996.

The White House has been struggling with various versions of the Pentagon proposal for more than a week but has run into unexpected opposition from several quarters, including much of California’s political leadership, which has decried the plan as inadequate.

The earlier version had sought a formal vote of approval by the commission--based on fears by some White House strategists that the panel might come back later and criticize the President for trying to circumvent the commission on McClellan.

However, Administration planners were forced to go back to the drawing board after some commission members apparently balked at the idea of having to take a separate vote after the panel had submitted its final report. Several expressed skepticism that the plan would work at all.

Under the latest plan, the President would simply approve the commission’s recommendations, closing McClellan over the next several years and transferring its remaining jobs and equipment to Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania.

As the work force at McClellan shrank, however, the Pentagon would parcel out some of the aircraft maintenance load to private firms in the Sacramento area, which presumably would hire many of the laid-off McClellan workers.

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Pentagon officials said Sunday they had not yet decided whether contracts should be turned over to an umbrella corporation or granted individually to smaller companies.

The government also could sell portions of the depot to commercial firms.

Officials warned that the transition might not be smooth. However, one official said, “we are going to try to make this one as seamless as possible,” meaning that privatization would be coordinated with the pace of the base closing.

There were no immediate estimates of just how many jobs might be saved in the process.

Analysts pointed out that the Pentagon already has begun cutting civilian jobs throughout the Defense Department, so the closure process might begin with fewer than the 11,000 now employed there.

Besides McClellan, the Pentagon is also planning a similar program involving workers at Kelly Air Force Base, an aircraft maintenance and repair depot in San Antonio. Kelly employs thousands of Latinos.

The Pentagon proposal amounts to a speedup of a plan by Defense Secretary William J. Perry to gradually privatize more of the military’s maintenance and repair work over the next several years, partly to free up troops for fighting missions.

Times staff writer James Bornemeier contributed to this story.

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