WASHINGTON (AP) _ Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged Congress Thursday to allow the Pentagon to close more military bases as a cost-saving measure, but he immediately encountered resistance.
``With a round of base closings and adjustments that reduced unneeded facilities, we could focus the funds on facilities we actually need,'' Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., said the process used to determine which bases should be closed during the 1990s was corrupted by the Clinton administration and caused unnecessary turmoil across the nation.
``I have serious concern about us going through that, putting every community in America that has any kind of a military installation into an absolute froth of anxiety,'' Hefley told Rumsfeld.
Hefley suggested devising a new approach in which facilities that the Pentagon knows it wants to keep open should be publicly excluded from the list of potential closing, even before final decisions are made. In response, Rumsfeld said he saw ``some attraction'' in that and was actively considering it.
Rumsfeld said base closings would be a way to save the money the Pentagon will need to transform the military. He did not suggest how many bases should close but said recent studies have indicated that the military has 20 percent to 25 percent too much base capacity.
Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced support for Rumsfeld's proposal. ``By removing that excess capacity we could potentially save an estimated $3 billion per year, which is money that could be used to help fix the remaining infrastructure,'' he told the committee.
Rumsfeld appeared before the committee to defend the administration's revised 2002 Pentagon budget, which calls for an extra $18.4 billion.
As part of that amended budget, Rumsfeld proposed shrinking the Air Force bomber fleet, retiring all 50 Peacekeeper long-range nuclear missiles and closing an unspecified number of bases in 2003.
To illustrate the problem the administration foresees in providing sufficient funds for defense, Rumsfeld said the 2003 Pentagon budget would have to increase by another $18.3 billion, to $347.2 billion, ``just to keep the department going next year on a straight line with no improvements.''
``And that would not make a significant contribution to transformation, it would be just holding where we are,'' he added.
Retiring the Peacekeepers, which were built to carry 10 warheads per missile, could be the first of the unilateral nuclear reductions President Bush has said he would make, with Congress' approval.
He said the $18.4 billion would be the biggest defense budget increase for any year since the mid-1980s, although he said it would barely begin the military modernization President Bush has promised.
The budget as proposed would total $328.9 billion. That compares to the $310.5 billion Bush proposed in February and $296 billion in the current Defense Department budget. The February proposal was amended to reflect preliminary results from Rumsfeld's review of military requirements, although most of his conclusions will not be reflected in the budget until 2003.
Contrary to the expectations of many in the military and in Congress, the administration's 2002 budget devotes relatively little to military modernization beyond what the Clinton administration had planned. Rumsfeld said that was because most of the extra $18.4 billion had to be earmarked for improving the living conditions of U.S. troops, which he said had deteriorated badly.
The plan calls for 5 percent pay raises for all troops, with some getting as much as 10 percent.
Rep. Ike Skelton, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and other committee members sent a letter to Rumsfeld Wednesday urging a minimum pay raise of 7.3 percent.
At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld accused the Clinton administration of having cut military investments too sharply.
``They overshot,'' he said, adding, ``The coasting went on too long.''
Critics say the Bush administration found itself with little room to afford the scale of defense spending increases Rumsfeld initially sought once Bush got his top-priority $1.35 trillion tax cut.
At least one key congressional Republican wasn't pleased. Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, the House Budget Committee chairman, threatened to block the proposed $18.4 billion increase until the Pentagon explains how it fits into its long-term budget plans.
``I'm very troubled by the administration's request for more defense money before it completes the strategic review and develops a long-term spending plan,'' Nussle said. ``Even more troubling is that most of the money is for current operations rather than to implement the findings of the review.''
Rumsfeld's plan to close more military bases also is likely to draw strong congressional reaction. He did not mention the subject at his news conference, but in a follow-up presentation the Pentagon's chief financial officer, Dov Zakheim, said Rumsfeld intends to propose base closings in 2003.
Zakheim said Rumsfeld aides are developing a plan for how to proceed on this politically sensitive subject. ``We are all across the map on this,'' he said, indicating that there was no consensus on whether there should be a single round of base closings, multiple rounds or other approaches.
Zakheim said experts have told the Pentagon that the military has about 25 percent too many bases.
Zakheim stressed that the plan for mothballing 33 of the Air Force's 93 B-1B long-range bombers and consolidating the remaining fleet at two bases _ compared with the current five _ does not mean the three bases that lose B-1Bs are in danger of closing. He said the Air Force is working to adjust the missions of the three bases to minimize job losses.
The decision to cut B-1Bs from the bomber force was the biggest surprise in the budget.