Few Conflicts in Base-Closing Effort

The independent panel reviewing the Pentagon's recommendations for closing U.S. military bases agrees with most of the cuts. One high-profile exception: Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

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The independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission has finished its work. They endorsed most of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations for closing or revamping military bases around the country. But the BRAC Commission, as it's called, did alter some of the Pentagon's list. Yesterday, the panel voted eight to one to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. The panel also gave a temporary reprieve to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. All the recommendations will go to Congress as a package to be decided on in an up-or-down vote. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The BRAC Commission, meeting in a basement hotel room in a Virginia suburb of Washington, labored through the Pentagon's recommendations concerning dozens of defense installations scattered across the country. All of their decisions will have repercussions in those communities, though few created bigger ripples than the vote to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open. The Pentagon wanted to move the 31 B-1B bombers now based in South Dakota to Texas. The Defense Department said the closure would save almost $2 billion, but commissioners questioned those savings, saying moving the bombers would cost some $20 million and result in all of the long-range attack bombers being based at one facility. Commission member retired Admiral Harold Gehman was skeptical.

Admiral HAROLD GEHMAN (Retired; BRAC Commission Member): So we have no savings. We're essentially moving the airplanes from one very, very good base to another very, very good base, which are essentially equal. The air space is about the same in both. Each one has advantages; each one has disadvantages.

NAYLOR: South Dakota politicians were joyous after yesterday's vote, none more so than Republican Senator John Thune. Thune edged Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle last fall by asking the question: Which candidate would be better positioned to keep Ellsworth open? When the Pentagon put Ellsworth on its closure list, the issue came back to haunt Thune. Yesterday, though, he said it was not about politics.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): This fight was not about me. It was about all the people in Rapid City and the surrounding area and all across South Dakota who were impacted by this decision. We had a team effort here. And in the end, what made this argument succeed was the merits.

NAYLOR: The decision to keep Ellsworth open, combined with votes earlier in the week to spare two major facilities in New England, raises questions about political influence on the BRAC Commission. Lawmakers from the affected states had lobbied heavily in favor of their facilities, but Pat Towell of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments doubts that politics played much of a role in influencing the commission's votes. Towell says the commission members are what he calls serious people who have spent their careers at senior level national security jobs.

Mr. PAT TOWELL (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment): They are not people who have to worry about where the next paycheck's coming from. They're not angling for an appointment as ambassador to some cushy tropical isle. So it's hard to see what kind of political leverage--in the normal use of that word--a community would have or a bunch of members of Congress from a particular state would have on individual commissioners, let alone the commission as a whole.

NAYLOR: Towell says the bipartisan commission did what Congress intended when it established the base closing procedure: independently reviewing the Pentagon's claims for cost savings and military efficiencies. The commission's decisions now go to the president, who has said he'll pass them along to Congress without making any changes, and Congress is not expected to interfere thereafter.

The final part of the commission's work yesterday was a review of several proposed Air National Guard base closures, but its authority to close any such facilities was thrown into doubt when a federal district court judge in Philadelphia ruled the commission could not close an Air National Guard base in Pennsylvania without the approval of that state's governor. An appeal of that decision is considered likely.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: And the time is 18 minutes past the hour.

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