WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate narrowly endorsed a new round of base closings Tuesday, supporting the Bush administration's bid to shed unneeded facilities and use the money to fight the war against terrorism.
The vote was 53-47, with Democrats giving greater support to President Bush's initiative than he got from his fellow Republicans, many of whom contended the nation shouldn't mothball bases just as it gears up for an extended battle.
It was the first roll call vote taken as the Senate opened debate on the $343 billion defense authorization bill for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Just before the vote, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, read part of a letter from Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seeking support for a new round of closings.
``The authority to eliminate excess infrastructure will be an important tool our forces will need to become more efficient and serve as better custodians of the taxpayers' money,'' Shelton wrote. ``We cannot afford the costs associated with carrying this excess infrastructure.''
Opponents of more base closings included Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who said it was the wrong time for such upheavals ``when our reserves are being called up, our National Guard is being called up, our communities are being told, 'Support our military.'''
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who offered the amendment to cut a base-closings provision from the measure, argued: ``Now, more than ever, we should hold off further downsizing ... until we have analyzed how to fight the first war of the 21st century.''
The Bush administration's February budget said the nation had a 23 percent surplus of bases, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reiterated the need to close them in letters to committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Warner on Friday.
``In the wake of the terrible events of September 11, the imperative to convert excess capacity into warfighting ability is enhanced, not diminished,'' Rumsfeld wrote. ``We simply must have the freedom to maximize the efficient use of our resources.''
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime base-closing supporter, argued: ``This vote is really all about whether we're going to do business as usual, and preserve our bases in our states whether they're necessary or not, or whether we're going to have ... the most efficient military machine to fight this long, protracted struggle.''
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a single round of base closings in 2003 by a bipartisan vote of 17-8 on Sept. 7 _ four days before the attacks _ as part of the bill authorizing spending for military work by the Defense and Energy departments.
The House Armed Services Committee tried to derail base closures by omitting them from its version of the bill, which the House was starting to debate Tuesday.
There have been four rounds of base-closings, in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995. A total of 451 installations, including 97 major ones, were ordered closed or realigned.
Lawmakers dislike base closures because the upheavals can hurt communities. They also question whether the nation has realized the massive savings touted as a reason to shutter facilities.