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Base-closing plan angers Republicans
USA Today/Yahoo News
By Kathy Kiely
USA TODAY Fri Aug 26

A Defense Department plan to close hundreds of facilities that it says are obsolete has infuriated prominent Republican lawmakers at a time when their support for President Bush's Iraq strategy could be more critical than ever.

"I think they are going to have trouble with some of us," says Rep. Ray LaHood (news, bio, voting record), a veteran Illinois Republican fighting to save a National Guard base. A protégé of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., LaHood called the base closing process being finalized this week "as bush league as I have ever seen."

The president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "should have paid a lot more attention to those of us who supported them in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to answer specific charges about the base-closing list. He defended it, saying the base closure process "was designed in a way specifically to remove many of the political concerns that surround it. We support that process."

The congressional criticism comes as the Bush administration is trying to maintain support for an increasingly unpopular war. In a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll earlier this month, 54% said going to war in Iraq was a mistake, the highest since last summer.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) was created in 1988 to take politics out of the process of shuttering military facilities in the United States. This year's hit list included facilities in the states and districts of some key White House allies and that has made some angry:

• Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., fighting to save thousands of defense jobs in the northern part of his state, said the Pentagon's way of picking facilities was "rigged" to mirror Rumsfeld's priorities: "I feel very strongly that some of these actions were never envisioned by those of us who put the law together."

• Sen. Olympia Snowe (news, bio, voting record), R-Maine, a key swing vote on several issues, said she believes the Pentagon targeted two installations in her state (one of which BRAC decided to keep open) because of "a bias in the military in the Northeast." She said the process left her less inclined to trust the Pentagon's decision making "without question."

• Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., serves on the House Armed Services Committee and spent the last two months trying to save more than 8,000 jobs at a historic naval base in his district. The commission spared the Naval Submarine Base at New London, but Simmons is still irked that it was a target.

"I think I have been a good soldier," says Simmons, who faces a tough re-election campaign next year. "So you can imagine my shock on May 13 when the only base in my state, which happens to be 10 minutes from my house, was on the list."

Fueling Republican resentment: The feeling that political favoritism was allowed to influence decisions during the last round of base closings in 1995, when Democrats were in charge. At the time, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota persuaded
President Clinton to take Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota's second-largest employer, off the chopping block.

"I told him how critical this was to me," Daschle said Thursday. "I think it did make a difference that I had access to him."

Republican John Thune defeated Daschle last year and said he'd be in a better position to protect Ellsworth because he and Bush are in the same political party. However, the freshman senator wasn't able to keep the Pentagon from targeting the base again this year.

"I'm extremely disappointed in what in my view was the secretary of Defense's poor judgment," Thune says.

Under the federal law that created BRAC, Congress and President Bush must either accept or reject the recommendations in their entirety - no picking individual bases. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (news, bio, voting record), R-Texas, said there may be an attempt to reject the final list, but doesn't believe it will succeed.

Hutchison doesn't believe anger about base closings will affect Rumsfeld with Congress, but thinks a sixth round of base closings won't be authorized. "There is a bad feeling about the process," she says.

Why are outdated bases still needed? Some republicans feel it's because they gave Bush their support for his silly wars. Others think the military should be used as a jobs program. Still others think bases are being closed because they're in regions of the country Rumsfeld doesn't want to reward.

Notice how none of the complaints deal with the military being essential to our national security.