WASHINGTON - To thousands of communities, the battle to rescue military bases is a matter of economic life and death.
As the Base Realignment and Closure Commission met yesterday for the first time since receiving the Pentagon's list of bases recommended for cutbacks or closing, lobbyists and unpaid activists thronged Capitol Hill in an effort to save bases.
The commission is considered unlikely to make major changes.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged commission members yesterday to avoid changing Pentagon recommendations on base closings and adjustments, saying a slight change in one location could affect troops somewhere else.
"I did not make a single change in the recommendations," Rumsfeld said after testifying. "It struck me that to try to reach in and pull a thread out of the center of that or to adjust something would have nonintuitive effects and implications throughout the system."
In four previous rounds of base closing, the commission overseeing them approved 85 percent of the Pentagon's recommendations, leaving the majority of lobbyists for imperiled bases with nothing to show for months of work.
This year, new rules will make changing Pentagon recommendations more difficult. It will take seven of the nine commission members to add a base to the list of closings, while five votes are needed to remove a base from the list.
The commission has four months to deal with a list of recommended closings that is more complex than in previous rounds. It also lacks the resources used by the Pentagon to compile its list.
"The legislation stacks the deck very heavily against adding bases to the closure list," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.
The panelists are defense contractors, former members of Congress and ex-military officers, and some of them hold out hope of surprising critics.
One of them, Philip Coyle, a former assistant defense secretary who was on a commission set up by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to save the state's bases, was known for questioning military weapons-testing procedures when he worked at the Pentagon.
Another, former Rep. James V. Hansen, a Utah Republican, sometimes battled the Pentagon as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee in the 1990s.
"This is an uncommonly well-informed and self-confident group of commissioners," Thompson said. "It's not a collection of hacks."
The panel includes one member from Connecticut, the state hit hardest in the recommendations. Retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd Warren Newton is an executive at Pratt & Whitney, which makes airplane engines.
The base-closing panel was created to insulate decisions from politics, but the final decisions must be approved by Congress. Commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi told Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the panel "noted the complexity" of the Pentagon plan.
That plan, outlined Friday, calls for closing 33 major domestic bases and cutbacks at 29 more for an estimated savings of $48.8 billion over two decades.
The commission must deliver its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8. He can forward it to Congress or send it back to the commission with his recommendations. In that case, the panel would have to resubmit its report by Oct. 20, and the president would have to send it to Congress by Nov. 7.
Congress would have 45 days after receiving the report to approve or reject it.
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