AYER, MASS. — AYER, Mass. -- It's not as if the fate of this little town hangs in the balance, but, says Jack Kleczska, a local plumber, "everyone's holding their breath so hard, their faces are turning blue."
Indeed, sometime next weekend -- hopefully before Ayer's citizenry passes out -- a blue-ribbon panel in Washington is expected to decide whether to rubber-stamp the Pentagon's decision to close the Army base here. For Ayer, a community of about 6,500, shuttering up Fort Devens could, in the words of local Congressman Chester G. Atkins, "be thoroughly devastating," further depressing a locale that prosperity has long forgot.
Ayer is not unaccompanied in its song of woe.
In April, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney called for the shuttering of 31 major military bases, such as Fort Devens, and the closure of 12 smaller facilities, such as the Naval Electronics Systems Engineering Activity in St. Inigoes, Md. Twenty-eight other installations, including a handful of posts scattered throughout Maryland, would also be scaled back under the secretary's plan.
The idea, of course, is to save money that Congress says the Defense Department can no longer spend. By 1995, the armed forces are to reduce the number of uniformed personnel in their ranks by about 25 percent. As part of the deal, Mr. Cheney said the base closures themselves would net the federal government an extra $850 million.
As part of this deal, about 34,000 civilians will lose their jobs. That reality, hitting home as the nation staggers out of a protracted recession, has lawmakers, local officials and Pentagon brass squaring off in an intensifying contest of political muscle and nerve as a July 1 deadline approaches for the panel to pass final judgment on the Pentagon's list and send its recommendations to President Bush.
"It's very unpleasant, leads to some uncomfortable situations," said Representative Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine. "But there's no way around it: You have to do what you can for your district."
Mr. Bush has until July 15 to accept or reject the commission's findings, after which Congress has the authority to reject the entire package. Until then, however, the battle for the spoils of a shrinking defense budget is pitting erstwhile allies against each other in an unapologetic tug of war that transcends party identity.
Ms. Snowe, for example, is fighting to keep Loring Air Force Base open against the efforts of fellow Representative David O'B. Martin, R-N.Y., who is fighting her attempt to mothball an Air Force base in his district.
Loring is on the Pentagon's hit list, while the Plattsburgh, N.Y., Air Force Base is not. The Maine congressional delegation's exertions on behalf of Loring have been so successful that the panel, formally called the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, now says that it might instead close the Plattsburgh base, which sits in Mr. Martin's district.
"We just got annihilated by politicians from Maine," Plattsburgh's mayor, Clyde Rabideau, recently complained to a Maine newspaper. "They kicked our butts."
Ms. Snowe skipped Queen Elizabeth's historic visit to the House of Representatives last month so she could press Loring's case with commission Chairman James Courter, a former Republican representative from New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Mr. Martin contends that Ms. Snowe and her fellow Maine residents have "long passed any day's quotas for red herrings" and expresses sublime confidence that "once the commission sees the facts, they won't have any question" about closing Loring instead of Plattsburgh.
Similar contests, played out with studied civility and often through gritted teeth, punctuate the lobbying efforts of almost every state delegation that seeks to protect a base.
The California delegation is, for example, locked in a mighty struggle with the Pennsylvania delegation over the fate of the Long Beach Naval Station and Shipyard vs. the Philadelphia Naval Station and Shipyard.
Similarly, the Massachusetts delegation is staking much of its Fort Devens campaign on a determination of a 1988 base closing panel to transfer the Army's Information Systems Command from an Arizona base to Fort Devens by 1995.
"Devens is the only base that is being treated this way," complained Jim Rooney, a retired Army colonel retained by Ayer to lobby this year's commission. "In 1988, the closure commission said that the ISC would go to Fort Devens. We won the coin toss. Now they come back and say, 'OK, best two out of three.' "
Likewise, Democratic lawmakers from a number of states -- including Maryland -- are blasting the Pentagon for recommending the closure of military labs before yet another independent commission -- this one explicitly dedicated to the fate of the labs -- had a chance to report its findings.
"This is a subversion of the will of Congress," fumed Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, noting that Congress voted to create the commission only last year. "We will take this to court if we have to."
Such complaints -- that the Pentagon has ignored the law, cooked up the results of the studies justifying a base closure or selected a base to close for political reasons -- are the stuff through which the seven members of the commission must sift.
"We have to weigh all the arguments -- military, economic," said Mr. Courter, who quickly went on to suggest that political arguments for or against a base "won't wash."
There nevertheless is no shortage of suspicion about the Pentagon's motivations. While bases in Republican and Democratic districts alike have been targeted, an easy majority of lost jobs would fall in districts represented by Democrats.
Mr. Cheney dismissed as "goofy" charges that the administration targeted bases in Democrats' districts.
But the suspicions remain. One of Congress' most outspoken liberals, Representative Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., asked congressional investigators to examine a Pentagon memo that he said suggested that the Navy had fudged reports on Alameda Naval Air Station in California to ensure its inclusion on the closure list.
Elsewhere, when liberal lawmakers represent areas with targeted bases, speculation runs rampant that their dovish voting records had something to do with the base's ill fortune.
One point of irony not lost on the townspeople of Ayer is the fact that their elected representatives in Congress -- including Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry -- have been among the most outspoken critics of Defense Department spending. The voting records of Mr. Atkins, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kerry have not, however, prevented the three from vigorously defending Fort Devens.