- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002


A House panel yesterday endorsed a new round of military base closings in 2005 over the objections of lawmakers who said shuttering more facilities would harm the nation's war on terrorism and economic recovery.

"We are at war now and here we are shutting down bases," said Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, Texas Democrat. "I think it's the wrong time."

A proposal to repeal a new round of closings approved by Congress last year failed on a 38-19 vote in the House Armed Services Committee. The panel moved toward approval of legislation to authorize military spending by the Defense and Energy departments for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The Pentagon has said it needs the savings it would reap from an undetermined number of base closings to pay for essential military activities. The previous four rounds of base closures led to the shutdown or realignment of 451 installations, including 97 major bases.

"We have to cut the waste out of the federal budget and that means closing some facilities," said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican. "We've got to make tough decisions. It's not about getting everything we want."

The total amount that the panel was expected to endorse would roughly match President Bush's $396 billion defense-spending proposal, the largest increase in two decades.

As House lawmakers worked on their version of the spending blueprint in subcommittee meetings over the past week, however, they pushed spending above Mr. Bush's request in several areas. Two were relative losers in the administration proposal: military construction and Navy shipbuilding.

Lawmakers have been advocating meeting current military needs with a $10 billion war-reserve fund since it appeared in the White House's budget request. Lawmakers of both parties have objected to giving Mr. Bush essentially a blank check to spend for unspecified future needs in the war on terrorism without further congressional action.

Debate before the full committee was expected to focus on that reserve fund, as well as missile defense and efforts to change the arcane process of privatizing Defense Department functions.

On Tuesday, the procurement subcommittee supported an extra $3.2 billion for weapons, including an additional $1 billion to build ships for a total of $73.4 billion. Last week, a separate panel added $1 billion for military construction, which on Mr. Bush's schedule was to have dropped to $4.8 billion from $6.5 billion.

Additionally, the research and development subcommittee approved a $21 million addition Tuesday to the administration's request for missile defense, to $7.8 billion.

House lawmakers also have endorsed increasing active-duty troop levels in the four services by a total of 12,650 personnel, or 1 percent, the largest since 1986. The administration sought no increase in the current force of 1.4 million.

The overall bill would also begin allowing military retirees to collect disability benefits on top of retirement pay, accelerate development of pilotless planes for surveillance and attack, provide billions more for a new generation of stealth jet fighters, earmark $27 billion for fighting terrorism, and boost military pay by at least 4.1 percent.

The proposal is expected to reach the House floor next week, just as the Senate Armed Services Committee begins work on its version. Congressional appropriators also must write separate appropriations legislation before the money can be spent.

The increase for shipbuilding came after lawmakers from shipbuilding states such as Mississippi, Maine and Virginia complained about Mr. Bush's proposal for only five new warships next year.

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