WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's plan to end Navy bombing exercises on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island is generating fierce opposition from conservative Republicans, who say Congress can block the proposal.
The lives of military personnel would be endangered if the Navy stops the exercises and opponents at other training sites would only pick up steam if Bush's proposal stands, GOP lawmakers told reporters Thursday.
Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would conduct hearings on the proposal this month.
Bush announced Thursday in Goteborg, Sweden, that 60 years of Navy bombing exercises on the island would end in May 2003. That's when the military would have pulled out under an agreement between former President Clinton and Puerto Rico's former governor, Pedro Rossello, if Vieques voters decided in a November referendum to end the exercises.
The training has been unpopular with many Hispanic voters, leaving Bush with a political problem, but the criticism from GOP lawmakers has created a new dilemma for the White House. The lawmakers said any change in the November referendum _ a plebiscite signed into law _ would need approval from Congress.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he ``will do everything I can within my power to keep from changing the law so that we can go ahead with the November referendum and let the self-determination on the island of Vieques take place.''
Inhofe said, ``I see this as an issue that means American lives. We are going to lose other ranges if this range is lost.''
Stump said he was ``a little surprised today at the suddenness of the announcement'' and called the proposal ``a step in the wrong direction.''
``We have other areas ... even within this country where there have been numerous complaints about our training around our bases, and I think once you give in to this type of action ... then we're inviting trouble in many other places,'' he said.
Democrats said Bush should end the bombing sooner. ``I'm sorry that they seem to be putting it off for two years,'' House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said.
A nonbinding referendum will be held later this year in Vieques, where protests against use of the island have become more intense. The island has more than 9,000 residents.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and its former chairman, also called for Senate hearings but the new committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., only would say he had taken the request under advisement.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, wondered what the United States should tell other countries that host U.S. training facilities.
``What do we tell them? We won't bomb on ours, but we'll bomb on yours?'' Hansen said.
Speaking to reporters on his weeklong European tour, Bush said Thursday, ``These are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there.'' He added: ``The Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises.''
In Puerto Rico, Gov. Sila Calderon said she was satisfied by the announcement. ``But we deplore that the intention to continue with the military exercises and bombings for two additional years,'' she said.
Pentagon officials want planning to begin now for an end to all exercises, possibly with appointment of a study panel to look at alternative sites and ways to train.
A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is hoped such a panel would find a location that is similar while also switching to more simulated training.
At the Pentagon, officials said Bush's decision was a big disappointment. They were concerned that he did not await results of the November referendum on Vieques.