WASHINGTON (AP) _ Only one day into his new role as Senate minority leader, Sen. Tom Dascle, D-S.D., used its power to pick for the base closing commission a businessmen leading the drive to save an Air Force base in his home state.

Dascle selected Al Cornella, who runs a commercial refrigeration business in Rapid City, S.D., for the eight-member panel that decides which military bases are to be closed now that the Cold War is over.

As the new Democratic leader in the Senate, Daschle is entitled to make one recommendation for a presidential appointment to the panel. And Rapid City is home to nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota's largest employer.

And Cornella, a Navy veteran, is chairman of the local chamber of commerce's Ellsworth task force, a group that recently hired a Washington consultant to lobby the commission. Two weeks ago, he and a group of officials from the state met two weeks ago with Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall to discuss the base's future.

The selection was immediately denounced by the Texas congressman who wrote the law that set up the commission.

``I assume that this is a joke,'' said House Republican Leader Dick Armey, who developed the base-closing process. ``A parochial advocate should be testifying before the commission, not sitting on it. This candidate would seem to have exactly the wrong qualifications to be an impartial commissioner.''

Daschle's statement announcing Cornella's selection Thursday did not mention his role with the Ellsworth task force.

Cornella ``brings the perspective of middle America to the process. ... He realizes the need for base closure and, at the same time, appreciates the impact it will have on communities,'' Daschle said.

Congress set up the Base Closure and Realignment Commission to provide an independent, bipartisan method of deciding which bases to close as the military shrinks. The commission will take recommendations from the Pentagon next spring and draw up a list of closings to be accepted or rejected by Congress and the president.

Jim Courter, who chaired the commission from 1991 to 1994, said Cornella would have to excuse himself from any deliberations dealing with Ellsworth and possibly any similar bases.

``He's not coming with a perspective of evenhandedness. It's very important to have no opinion on a particular facility,'' Courter said in an interview Thursday.

An aide to Daschle said Cornella probably would stay out of deliberations dealing with Ellsworth.

In 1993, two commission members excused themselves from deliberations affecting installations in areas where they owned property or had business interests that could have been affected by a base closure.

Members of the commission typically have extensive experience in politics, the military or business. Courter was a former congressman and member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had two selections for the commission this year: He recommended Michael P.W. Stone, secretary of the Army in the Bush administration, and Wendi Steele, who was an aide to the commission in 1991 and 1992.

The House leadership is also entitled to three recommendations, and one more is reserved for Clinton to select.

Clinton is expected to send the seven recommendations to the Senate next week for confirmation. The Senate already has confirmed the commission's new chairman, former Sen. Alan Dixon of Illinois.

Cornella was unavailable for comment Thursday, according to people who answered the telephones at his business and the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce.

Ellsworth, one of two bases for the Air Force's B-1B bomber fleet, employs nearly 4,600 military personnel.