House-Senate negotiators agree to more base closings, finish defense authorization bill

Wednesday, December 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ After steadfastly holding out against base closings, House negotiators on the crucial $343.3 billion defense authorization bill agreed Wednesday to a single round as demanded by President Bush.

The base-closings round would not occur until 2005, two years later than the administration requested, under a compromise reached by leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services committees late last week to get the bill moving and erase the possibility of a Bush veto.

The issue caused a monthlong standoff between House and Senate negotiators trying to reconcile their two versions of the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2002, which began Oct. 1.

The overall defense bill agreed to Wednesday by House negotiators, and Tuesday by their Senate counterparts, contains many programs of importance to the military. They include minimum 5 percent across-the-board pay raises, with up to 10 percent increases for some; new housing benefits, and more help with moving expenses.

Anti-terrorism spending totals about $7 billion, up $1 billion from 2001.

Bush won not only on his demand for a round of base closings, but full funding of his $8.3 billion request for his prized missile defense plan, a $3.1 billion increase over spending in 2001.

The Senate had authorized the full $8.3 billion, while allowing $1.3 billion of it to be used for anti-terrorism efforts instead. The House had offered only $7.9 billion. Conferees adopted the Senate's plan.

The negotiators agreed with the administration's request to cancel the January referendum in Vieques on future use of that Puerto Rican island for military training. Anti-Navy protest erupted there after off-target bombs killed a civilian guard in 1999. The Navy has used inert ammunition since then. Bush has promised to end the maneuvers by 2003.

The bill would prevent the Navy secretary from closing the facility until he certifies that a site or sites providing ``equivalent or superior'' levels of training will be available. If the Vieques facilities are closed, the land would be transferred to the Department of the Interior.

Both the full House and Senate must pass the final version of the defense authorization bill before it can go to President Bush for his signature.

The Bush administration insists some bases must be closed, saying one-fifth to one-fourth of base structure is not needed, and closing excess facilities would save $3.5 billion or so a year.

The 2005 date puts the next round into a new presidential term and two House elections away.

Lawmakers said that would provide the time needed to determine exactly what military force is needed to fight the new wars of the 21st century. And the conferees placed many requirements on the administration before it can call for the closings.

Among other things, the defense secretary must submit a detailed force structure plan in 2004 and an infrastructure inventory that supports future military needs, and he must certify that closures are needed and justified in light of those findings.

Military needs such as readiness and training would be the primary factors in the evaluation to ensure training space is not sacrificed to short-term savings.

The defense secretary also must certify that the closures would lead to annual net savings for each service by 2011. Many lawmakers question whether touted savings from past closures have been realized.

The president, in consultation with congressional leaders, would appoint the nine-member base closing commission in March 2005. Two months later, the defense secretary would submit his list of facilities to be closed.

It would take seven members to add a facility to that list, but just a simple majority to remove a facility. The president could approve that list and send it to Congress, or reject it and send it back to the commission. Neither Congress nor the president could make changes to the list.

Critics of more base closures cite the Sept. 11 attacks as a reason to keep all bases open. With a potentially limitless war on terrorism ahead, they said, this is no time to give up real estate that could be impossible to replace if needed later.

Previous base closings _ in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 _ led to closure or realignment of 451 installations, including 97 major ones.