WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration's effort to start a new round of military-base closings has been torpedoed by a Senate committee, probably ending chances that any such initiative will make it out of Congress this year.
The proposal, strongly supported by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the armed service chiefs, was defeated in the Senate Armed Services Committee largely because of lingering GOP resentment over President Clinton's move to keep open two bases in politically vital California and Texas one year before his reelection bid, lawmakers and analysts said Friday.
The Clinton administration's move to save Air Force maintenance jobs at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento and Kelly Air Force Base near San Antonio "is coming back to bite them," said Erick Pages of Business Executives for National Security, an advocate of new rounds of base closings.
And some analysts said they believe that the same dynamics could spell trouble for the base-closing effort next year, when the prospects for a new round already will be complicated by the approach of midterm elections.
The showdown on base closings came in the Armed Services Committee late Thursday as it acted on the $268-billion defense-authorization bill for fiscal 1998. Supported by defense officials, Senate proponents of closings had argued that more savings from unneeded infrastructure were badly needed to free funds to pay for replacement of outdated weaponry.
They had argued that new rounds of closings were needed in 1999 and 2002, and they wanted to add language to the authorization bill calling for creation of a base-closing commission. But in a closed session, nine members voted for the measure and nine against it--killing the proposal and stunning its Senate supporters.
"It was a disappointment," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "I expected to win by one vote." Levin and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) now plan to try to add language to the defense bill when it reaches the Senate floor.
But that will be considerably more difficult to do than injecting the language in committee, especially given the abundant signs of dissatisfaction over Clinton's earlier move. Levin acknowledged that it "could be hard" to get the amendment to the floor.
In the House, where the closing of a local base is far more likely to threaten a lawmaker's career, attitudes toward new closings already were more hostile. And in recent weeks the depth of resentment of Clinton's move has been increasingly clear.
A major Pentagon report released last month said that new rounds of base closings and cuts in armed-services personnel were needed to finance the modernization of weapons systems. The report cited military test ranges, weapons labs and training centers as prime targets. Prospects for closings in California, which still has nearly 100 military facilities, include the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, Edwards Air Force Base and the Naval Airfare Center at Point Mugu.
Past base closings followed a procedure whereby Clinton and Congress were required to accept either all or none of the panel's recommendations on which facilities were to be closed. In the summer of 1995, as Clinton's reelection campaign was gearing up, he accepted most of the commission's recommendations for closure but effectively overruled its proposed shutdown of McClellan and Kelly by promising to bring in private firms to perform the aircraft-maintenance work at the bases.
That move has continued to draw protests from Senate and House Republicans, who claim that it constituted unfair tampering with a system that was set up to be above partisan politics. Even Levin, who backed Clinton's move, acknowledged that those who charge that politics had figured in the decision "have got a fair basis for their belief."
One clear sign of the Republican outrage is language in the defense-authorization bills that would require the Pentagon to send aircraft-maintenance work to government-run maintenance depots before private firms are employed unless government depots are operating at or near capacity. The language would effectively close McClellan and Kelly.
"This is a direct hit at McClellan and Kelly," said Liesl Heeter, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington research center. "It shows these feelings haven't died down or faded."
She predicted that a new base-closures commission eventually will be created because of the government's need to cut or redirect spending. "But it doesn't look like this year, and next year, I'd say it's less likely," she said.