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GOP Congressmen Trading Fire Over O.C. Base Closure : Military: S.D. Republican will testify today that cost estimates on El Toro station's move are exaggerated.


SAN DIEGO — On the eve of a key hearing on military base closings, San Diego officials vowed Wednesday to mount a vigorous counterattack to a proposal by Orange County congressmen to spare a base El Toro and close a San Diego base instead.

The counterattack will come in the form of testimony today before the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which is set to meet in San Diego.

"I'd rather be in my position than (that of Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) or Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove)) because they don't have the merit to go with their fight," Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego) said of his Republican colleagues from Orange County.

Cox and Dornan have proposed keeping El Toro Marine Corps Air Station open while closing San Diego's Miramar Naval Air Station and shipping its fighter squadrons to Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno and its "Top Gun" school to Nevada.

The two congressmen want the base closure commission to overrule the Pentagon, which would prefer to close El Toro and transfer its aviation units along with helicopters from the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station to Miramar. The Orange County congressmen cite a study by El Toro base commanders that estimates the cost of moving the Marines to Miramar at $1.2 billion. The Pentagon estimated that it would cost $340 million to accommodate the Marines at Miramar.

At the same time that Cox and Dornan came up with their plan to keep El Toro open, the commission staff added Miramar to its "hit list" of possible base closings, leading some San Diego officials to charge that political influence was being exerted by Orange County.

But commission member Patrick Bowman, who toured Miramar and the Naval Aviation Depot at North Island on Wednesday, insisted that the commission's decision on which bases to recommend to President Clinton for closure will not be tainted by politics.

Bowman left little doubt that Miramar and El Toro have become pitted against each other, and that only one is likely to survive. "We need to satisfy ourselves that it is more important for the nation to keep Miramar open and close El Toro, or vice versa," he said.

Cunningham, a Navy fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, said he will be prepared at today's meeting to debunk the arguments of Cox and Dornan, who are usually his ideological allies on matters of defense and foreign policy.

Cunningham will attempt to convince the commission that the $1.2-billion price tag for relocating the personnel and equipment from El Toro and the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station has been grossly exaggerated in an attempt to make such a move seem prohibitively expensive. He also will stress that moving the Miramar planes would put them too far away from the fleet.

"When you think Navy on the West Coast, you think San Diego, not Tustin, El Toro or Lemoore," Cunningham said.

But Cox said the cost figure has been validated by the commandant of the Marine Corps. He said he is pained at the idea of a political fight with a fellow Republican: "It is only in the kind of confused scenario that all this has become that El Toro and Miramar are in competition."

Lake Forest Councilwoman Marcia Rudolph, one of the south Orange County officials leading the effort to save the El Toro base, said she does not see how Cunningham can dispute the higher cost figures generated by El Toro base commanders.

"He obviously has not been in El Toro. He obviously has not looked at the facilities. He obviously does not know what he's talking about. I'm sorry," Rudolph said.

Already having stated their case during the first round of commission hearings last April, El Toro proponents will not be allowed to speak at today's hearing because it is intended to air arguments about new additions to the base closure list.

Tustin, which was ordered closed two years ago, is up for reconsideration since it is part of the realignment that includes El Toro and Miramar. However, city officials said they will ask that the Tustin base close on schedule.

One other Orange County base, the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, was recently added to the list for possible realignment but will not be discussed at the hearing, since only a small part of its operation is under review--the testing of tactical missiles. The base itself is not threatened for closure.

Miramar, the nation's busiest naval air station, has 15,000 employees and an annual payroll of $285 million. Rep. Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego) said she is confident that "politics and cronyism" will not affect the commission's decision.

El Toro and Tustin have 12,470 military and civilian employees with an annual payroll of $267 million.

At the Naval Aviation Depot, also on the list for possible closure, worried civilian employees watched as Bowman, politicians and reporters roamed amid the supersonic fighters.

The commission today also will hear testimony about the Long Beach shipyard and facilities at Barstow, Monterey and Ogden, Utah. The commission must make its final recommendations to Clinton in July.

Times staff writer Gebe Martinez contributed to this story.

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