WASHINGTON — Although Pentagon officials denied it, members of Congress charged Friday that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was using the threat of more than 100 base closures and consolidations to stave off unwanted cuts in the military budget.
Some protested that the changes proposed by the Republican Administration appeared to fall heavily on the home territory of Democrats, who are expected to mount the strongest attacks on weapons programs and overseas troop deployments in the Pentagon budget to be released Monday.
But Republican legislators who face potential base cuts back home were unhappy, too.
"We're not seeing a military strategy; we're seeing a budget strategy," said Lynda Schuler, an aide to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Wilson is expected to fight a long list of proposed base changes in California.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), head of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military installations, warned that if Cheney goes after a large number of domestic bases for political reasons, Congress will close bases favored by the Pentagon overseas.
"We can come up with our own list of little pet rocks," she declared.
Defense officials insisted that the proposals are driven by military needs, not budget strategy. Political motives "are not the purpose of this exercise," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.
An official said that Cheney asked the military services to draw up lists of closures and consolidations that would complement the manpower demobilizations and equipment retirements that they had planned for the next five years.
Nevertheless, lawmakers and their aides made it clear that Cheney's list conveys a powerful threat to those who might have been inclined to slash the defense budget even further.
In California, the Navy's proposed changes offered a particularly dramatic indication of that strategy.
The Navy proposed to study Alameda Naval Depot, Oakland Naval Supply Center, Moffett Naval Air Station in Santa Clara County and the Sacramento Army Depot as candidates for closure or realignment. At the same time, the Navy warned Cheney that if Congress cut its budget beyond the levels Cheney approved, it would have to consider the closure of Treasure Island Naval Station, Oak Knoll Naval Hospital and Alameda Naval Air Station.
Nearly all those facilities lie in the district of Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland), a fiery critic of defense spending on the House Armed Services Committee.
"Is this related to force structure reduction or to partisan retaliation for opposition to weapons programs?" Dellums aide Robert B. Brauer asked.
"This base closure stuff--that's the stick," a Senate aide said. "They're telling us we can cooperate and take some of the closures or we can cut further and face even more painful ones."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado), whose district stands to lose the El Centro Naval Air Facility--winter home of the Navy's Blue Angels flying team--echoed that view. Calling Cheney's move "a preemptive strike against a congressional move to cut further," Hunter said the threat of further closures "is going to cause congressmen to reevaluate any tendency to view the national defense as an easy mark in the budget wars."
Some lawmakers who face relatively light hits were supportive of the Cheney move. Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) said the proposals "make good sense." Washington's Ft. Lewis may lose soldiers from the Army's 9th Division while gaining some from the 7th Division based at Ft. Ord in California.
If nothing else, the base change proposals illuminate how difficult it will be for Congress to make deep cuts in the defense budget while trying to defend interests back home.
For example, Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), chairman of the House Budget Committee, strongly supports trims in military spending to reduce the deficit and provide a "peace dividend" for social and environmental programs. However, Panetta said Friday he would vigorously oppose plans to shift the 7th Division from Ft. Ord in his district to Ft. Lewis.
"Simply moving the 7th from one post to another with all of its inherent costs is difficult to understand or justify," he said.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), who might lose an Army depot in his area after seeing Mather Air Force Base marked for closure in a round of cuts last year, said the new proposals "make people very ambivalent because the peace dividend becomes a much more distant and perhaps fleeting goal."
One key House aide said, however, that the Cheney move was unlikely to work in a Congress that painfully accepted 86 closures just last year and later made the bitter discovery that the resulting savings would add up to only $694 million annually.
"It's just posturing by the Pentagon," he said.