Base Closing War Far From Over

Although the Base Realignment and Closure Commission is wrapping up its voting on the fate of hundreds of military facilities nationwide, more steps remain before the civic nail-biting can finally come to an end.

Here’s a look at what lies ahead:

_ While the nine-member panel has nearly finished ruling on the Pentagon’s recommendations to shut, shrink or move more than 800 facilities large and small, it still must prepare a final report and dispatch it to the White House by Sept. 8.

Once that document lands on his Oval Office desk, President Bush will have about two weeks to review it before the Sept. 23 deadline for him to either accept the commission’s hit list in its entirety or reject it in full.

In the interim, Bush can present his or the Pentagon’s concerns and preferences for changes to the panel, which would then consider whether to amend the decisions they made this week and send the report back to him.

Previous base-closing commissions have adopted some such changes requested by the administration, which have been relatively insignificant _ and uncontroversial _ modifications.

If the commissioners balk at making any suggested changes Bush may submit, the president would have only two choices: accept the final panel decisions or reject them in total by the Sept. 23 deadline.

Bush telegraphed his inclination earlier this month during an interview with Texas reporters. “I’m going to accept their recommendations as presented,” he said then.

Since the first base-closing round in 1988, the only president to quarrel with a commission’s picks was Bill Clinton, who in 1995 objected to the panel’s decision to close military maintenance depots in California and Texas. Clinton argued that both states had already suffered enough with other base closings and came up with a plan to keep the depots open but have them operated by private contractors.

Congressional Republicans howled in protest, accusing Clinton of trying to curry favor in the vote-rich states in advance of 1996 elections. But the change stood.

Base-closing experts predicted that Bush will not follow such an activist path, instead signing off on the panel’s final product if it bears substantial resemblance to the original Pentagon closing and realignment list.

“He has expended too much political collateral to walk away from the process at this point,” said Chris Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Proliferation think tank in Washington.

So far, the Pentagon has not commented publicly on any of the panel’s actions.

“We will begin to carefully review the commission’s recommendations and will have no comment on specific commission actions this week,” Michael Wynne, a deputy undersecretary of defense, said in a statement.

If Bush endorses the final list, its next stop would be Capitol Hill. There, members of the House and Senate will face a similar stark choice _ embrace the entire list or reject it entirely.

Experts say the prohibition on legislative meddling forms the heart of the base-closing process, which was designed specifically to keep politics and parochial horse-trading out.

_ Once the list is officially delivered, the House and Senate will have 45 legislative days to vote the roster up or down.

If Congress rejects the whole list _ which has never happened in the four previous rounds of base parings _ Bush would have the power to veto the legislative measure. In turn, Congress would be entitled to try to overrule that veto.

Meanwhile, several Capitol Hill lawmakers will try to make a separate, last-ditch assault when Congress returns after Labor Day to derail the entire process, arguing that bases should not be closed while America is engaged in continuing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Experts predict Congress will grumble, but ultimately vote to accept the panel’s final decisions.

“They will move on,” said Robert Gillcash, a former congressional aide who is now a senior adviser at McKenn, Long & Aldridge law firm in Washington.

_ One last hurdle will likely remain unresolved even after Congress acts. The governors of Illinois and Pennsylvania have filed suit against the Pentagon in an attempt to derail the closing of 30 Air National Guard facilities and the transfer of others.

The state officials contend that the Defense Department cannot move or shut a Guard unit without the permission of the governor because the troops fall under state command for peacetime domestic purposes such as riot control and providing emergency aid in the wake of natural disasters.

The Pentagon contends the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the right to act alone.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,