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Presidential Politics May Guide Base-Closing Plan

Lawmakers and Pentagon protest plan to close six military bases in voter-rich California

SOME lawmakers are predicting economic doom. Pentagon officials are warning that national defense will be impaired. But it could be electoral politics that tips President Clinton's hand on this year's round of military base closures.

Mr. Clinton is now reviewing the 1995 list of defense facilities that the independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) last week recommended be shut or scaled back as part of the US military's post-cold-war "downsizing."

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The panel wants to close 79 bases and reduce operations at 26 others. It is projecting savings of $19.3 billion over 20 years, but at a cost of some 93,565 jobs in 35 states, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

All or nothing

Under base-closure law, Clinton must accept the list in its entirety and send it to Congress for approval by July 15 or return it to the BRAC commission for revisions. Three previous BRAC lists have survived intense presidential and congressional scrutiny since 1988.

White House officials, however, have strongly indicated that this year's round may be different. And that would suit the Pentagon and the state of California just fine.

Most California lawmakers are enraged over BRAC's recommendation to close six major installations in the state, which employ more than 26,900 people. The facilities are the McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, the Oakland Army Base, Fort Hunter Liggett in Salinas, Ozinuka Air Station in Herlong, and the Sierra Army Depot.

The lawmakers say their state is still reeling from earlier BRAC rounds in which 22 major California bases were shut for a loss of more than 82,000 jobs.

"The state has already done its fair share," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. "It is really now up to the court of last resort, and the court of last resort is the president of the United States."

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Clinton is also under pressure from Pentagon officials worried about one California facility in particular: the McClellan Air Force Base. It was one of two Air Force logistics centers the BRAC panel voted to close against the Pentagon's wishes. The other was Kelly Air Force Base in Texas.

In submitting to the commission his own base-closure plan in February, Defense Secretary William Perry accepted an Air Force finding that reducing operations at its five logistics centers would be cheaper than closing one or more of those facilities. The commission, using its own arithmetic, decided otherwise.

Now, with Pentagon officials warning that closing McClellan and Kelly would hurt defense preparedness, Mr. Perry is analyzing the commission's list to determine if he should recommend that Clinton reject it.

Eyes on the prize

Some politicians and independent analysts believe that ultimately, politics will count more than economics or defense in Clinton's decision on whether to accept the BRAC list and allow all the California closures to stand.

California will wield 54 electoral votes in next year's presidential elections, the most of any state. Clinton would like to win them all. But allowing six more California bases to close could hurt his chances.

"Politics play heavily at this point," says Paul Taibl, who monitors the BRAC issue for the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security. "The commission made its recommendations, and this is where the base-closure process reemerges into the political light."

Other lawmakers are warning Clinton against vetoing the commission's list, saying that the BRAC process was designed to be insulated from politics.

"Do not do anything that would cast a cloud of suspicion," House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas urged the president at a news conference last week.

Administration officials insist that Clinton's review will be strictly objective. But there is little doubt that they are hoping the Pentagon determines that closing McClellan and Kelly will harm national defense. That would give Clinton a plausible excuse for asking the commission to rethink its closure list.

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