Staff and wire reports
WASHINGTON — The long wait is almost over.
President Bush on Thursday endorsed a plan for closing 22 major military bases and reconfiguring 33 others, leaving their fate to Congress.
Bush had until Sept. 23 to either accept the entire report from the Base Realignment and Closure commission and send it to Congress or return it to the commission for further work.
The report will become final in 45 days unless Congress acts to reject it in full. In previous rounds, lawmakers never have rejected reports, meaning communities probably have little hope of a reprieve for their bases.
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, Oklahoma’s 3rd District congressman, said he expects Congress will approve the list, ending the latest BRAC round.
“I would expect we would see a vote to affirm the list,” said Lucas, R-Okla. “It could be rejected if the majority of Congress votes to do that, but I do not see that happening. With the president’s action today I think we are in the final stages of the fifth round of BRAC, and once again Vance, Enid and the state of Oklahoma have done just amazingly well.
“Let’s get this over with and wait for a long, long time before we do it again.”
Under the plan, Oklahoma’s major military installations not only will remain open but will see growth. Vance Air Force Base is slated to pick up at least 99 new jobs (93 military and six civilian) along with 13 T-6 and 12 T-38 aircraft. Vance will pick up part of the undergraduate pilot training mission being moved from Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga., along with some of Moody’s Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training and Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals training for pilots and weapons systems officers.
“This is good for us,” said Mike Cooper, chairman of Vance Development Authority and Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission. “We can start implementing the growth and expansion we are scheduled to get.”
Vance also will become home of an $8.7 million Armed Forces Reserve Center. The commission voted to close 53 state National Guard Armory buildings and create seven such reserve centers, construction of which is supposed to begin in 2009.
“The community worked in a very organized way and won a lot of points with the brass at the Pentagon,” said Lucas. “When you have officers who have trained in Enid and who have only the most positive things to say for the community, it made it a lot simpler.”
“Way to go Enid and northwest Oklahoma,” said Cooper. “All of our enhancement and protection efforts have paid off. A lot of communities around the nation wish they had done what Enid and the state have done. The reason we were successful was our community, state and federal delegations working to protect and enhance the base.”
Bush had said for the process to be “nonpolitical” the commission’s decision would have to stand. He got the report last Friday from the nine-member Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
Bush’s submission of the report comes as his administration and Congress are preoccupied with aiding the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast and addressing other priorities. A GOP-led effort in the Senate to derail the base-closing process, which Republican leaders feared could embarrass them, has fizzled.
The commission said its recommendations would mean annual savings of $4.2 billion, compared with $5.4 billion under the plan it received in May from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had recommended closing 33 major bases and realigning 29 others.
The commission largely endorsed Rumsfeld’s vision to restructure the domestic network of military bases to save billions of dollars over the next two decades and streamline the Army, Navy and Air Force.
But commissioners did recommend keeping open several major bases against the Pentagon’s wishes, including a shipyard in Kittery, Maine, a submarine base in Groton, Conn., and Air Force bases in South Dakota and New Mexico.
The commission denied politics played a role in any decisions, even as it voted to keep open bases in the home states of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and other senators leading the opposition. That all but eliminated the possibility of congressional intervention.
In the House, the vast majority of members overwhelmingly support this round of closures and consolidations, which are the first in a decade.
Thune praised Bush for approving the report, which included a reprieve for Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. The pentagon sought to shutter the base that is home to half of the nation’s B1-B bombers.
“Although I still believe we should not be closing U.S. military facilities while at war, I commend the BRAC commission for taking an independent and objective approach to this process,” Thune said.
Military analysts have said this may be the last chance the White House and Pentagon have to save money by shuttering bases. Congress probably will resist approving an additional round of closures, analysts say, given the large amount of heartache lawmakers experienced.
Congress reluctantly authorized this round of closures only after the White House threatened to veto an entire defense bill if it did not give the Pentagon the go-ahead.
Senior writer Jeff Mullin and The Associated Press contributed to this story.