Senate Narrowly OKs Base Closure Study

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President Bush’s plan for a new round of military base closures won a narrow victory in the Senate on Tuesday, but it could face more obstacles from lawmakers eager to protect bases they view as vital to home-state or national interests.

On a 53-47 vote, the Senate backed a proposal to authorize a new comprehensive study of bases, with a goal of closing those found to be obsolete and merging others viewed as redundant by 2003.

The base-closing measure is part of a bill to authorize more than $343 billion in defense spending in the fiscal year that starts Monday. The legislation was largely drafted before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.


The House version of the defense authorization bill, which was approved late Tuesday on a 398-17 vote, omits the administration’s base-closing plan, meaning that the two chambers will have to reconcile their differences before sending a final bill to the White House. It is unclear which side would prevail; lawmakers opposed to base closure could try to bury the plan in conference.

What was clear Tuesday was the administration’s insistence on the importance of rethinking the system of bases as the nation embarks on a new war on terrorism.

Thanking the Senate for its support, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters: “There’s no question but that we do need to transform the military.”

Closing military bases in the best of times is a tricky business; the Sept. 11 attacks may have made the process even more difficult. Few lawmakers want to see home-state defense installations--and all of the economic benefits they bring--shut down. For that reason, in recent years Congress has typically authorized an independent commission to study base closures. Working with the Pentagon and the White House, such commissions help draw up lists of targeted bases, which is then sent to Congress for approval on an up-or-down vote.

Through such means, 97 major bases--29 of which were in California--were shut down during four rounds of closures from 1988 to 1995. The Pentagon claims that billions of dollars have been saved. But local officials have often found the process of converting bases to other uses costly and time-consuming--one reason Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) cited in voting against the administration position Tuesday. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also opposed the plan.

Of the 47 senators opposing the administration--the largest such display on the Senate floor since the terrorist attacks drew Congress to rally around the president--28 were members of Bush’s own party. They included such senior Republicans as Ted Stevens of Alaska, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott, the minority leader, said in a floor speech that a movement to close bases sends exactly the wrong message when the country is mobilizing for war.


“Great timing,” Lott jeered. “This is a great way to rally the troops.”

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who backed the administration, said the country could not afford to do otherwise. “More than ever, we must avoid waste,” Levin said. “More than ever, we must have the will to make tough choices.”