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Cohen defends proposal to close more military bases

May 20, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A fresh round of military base closings must be part of a proposed military overhaul because ``the money has to come from somewhere″ to pay for new weapons and trim costs elsewhere, Defense Secretary William Cohen told Congress today.

Cohen presented the sweeping defense plan to lawmakers apprehensive about the proposal to close more military bases and concerned about whether the Pentagon can afford all the weapons it wants into the next century.

Although Cohen’s proposal largely defends the military status quo in terms of overall forces and weapons programs, it contains many proposals certain to draw the wrath of lawmakers.

Cohen, a former senator, came to Capitol Hill fully aware of the political sensitivity of closing bases in members’ home states. But he said there is little alternative.

``The money has to come from somewhere,″ Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Not all members were ready to reject the base closing idea out of hand.

``There are issues in the ... report to which a lot of members, various members, are going to say: `Wait a minute, that gets a little too close to home,‴ said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

``There is infrastructure that is excessive and we are looking at a very difficult decision in terms of how to go ahead and continue to advance the process of closing bases,″ Coats said.

Other lawmakers indicated that the Pentagon review should have gone further in restructuring the nation’s military.

The Pentagon review ``strikes me as cautious, a document which puts more emphasis on continuity than on change,″ said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Atop the list, Cohen has acknowledged, is the review’s recommendation to hold two more base closure rounds. Four previous rounds since 1988 have closed 97 major bases.

``It’s going to be a difficult subject to come to grips with because local jobs are at stake,″ Cohen told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing Monday. As a former Maine senator who fought hard to save bases in his home state, Cohen should know. The notion of base closings, he said, ``strikes terror into the heart of many. It used to strike terror into my heart as well.″

Many lawmakers have already made clear they will oppose any more base closings. Republicans are still angry at President Clinton’s decision in 1995 to protect defense jobs at two closing bases in California and Texas _ states that were important to the president’s re-election.

``We ought to look at a new base closing commission once the administration keeps their word and finishes the last one,″ House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., said he would allow another closure round ``over my dead body.″

Cohen, who will spend much of this week defending the defense review in hearings on Capitol Hill, said he will argue that some closed bases have been transformed into thriving commercial enterprises.

Erik Pages, vice president of Business Executives for National Security, a Washington-based business group, said the base closure proposal is not necessarily dead on arrival.

``When it gets to the level where the Joint Chiefs of Staff go up to Capitol Hill and say, `We need more base closures,′ it’s going to happen,″ Pages said.

A National Defense Panel established by Congress to review the Pentagon’s study not only supports more closings but urges Congress to establish a permanent base closure commission. Under current law, Congress must separately approve each base closure commission and round of closings.

There is more on the 69-page report beyond base closure proposals likely to draw the ire of lawmakers.

The review proposes a sharp cut in the National Guard and Reserve, forces with powerful state and local constituencies. The Guard and Reserve would be trimmed from today’s force of 800,000 down to 640,000 by 2003, according to the plan.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is sure to be furious with the administration plan to cut the Navy FA-18 E and F fighter program nearly in half from a planned purchase of 1,000 aircraft down to 548 planes. McDonnell Douglas Corp. builds the FA-18 in St. Louis.

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