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White House sets stage for rejection of base-closure recommendations


WASHINGTON -- White House officials yesterday laid the groundwork for President Clinton to reject the recommendations of a military base-closing commission.

At stake are issues as disparate -- and profound -- as U.S. military readiness and presidential politics.

While not explicitly saying that the president will send the list back to the commission, one high-level White House aide said privately yesterday, "If we were going to accept the list, we'd probably be a little more circumspect in our statements."

Those statements began Saturday, when Vice President Al Gore and Pentagon officials expressed dismay at some of the decisions rendered late last week by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

Mr. Gore said that he was concerned about the commission's decisions, but added that it was too early to say what the administration would do. The Defense Department also questioned why the panel overturned several of its recommendations.

The Pentagon statement also mentioned the aspect of base closings that has historically been politically radioactive: jobs.

It stated that the administration would review "the cumulative economic impact of this and previous base closure actions" on states and communities.

Yesterday, White House officials, worried about being accused of playing presidential season politics, were careful to couch their objections in terms of what the closings would do to military readiness and preparedness, not jobs or votes.

But in communities from Maryland to California, local labor leaders, workers, government officials and military families were much more blunt.

"What happened on Friday, I believe, was a terrible tragedy," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, told about three dozen workers yesterday at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory at White Oak in Montgomery County. "Sixteen hundred people will lose their jobs."

Added Gov. Parris N. Glendening, "I understand the very real pain and uncertainty that has been brought to many, many families."

In addition to losing the naval warfare center at White Oak, Maryland stands to lose Fort Ritchie in the western part of the state, though 936 of its 2,500 jobs would be transferred to Fort Detrick.

Also slated for closing are the naval warfare centers in Annapolis, the Army publication center in Middle River, the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda and Fort Holabird in East Baltimore, though those jobs would be transferred to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

Instead of trying to fight something that appears to be out of their hands, Maryland's top politicians spent part of yesterday in White Oak, trying to console those who will lose their jobs at that facility and others around the state.

"We're going to take this tragedy and turn it into a victory using innovative ideas," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican.

In California, the nation's most populous state and one Mr. Clinton and his advisers insist he must carry to have a realistic chance at re-election, the attitude was more defiant.

On Friday, as the base commission made its final decisions, California's two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, vowed to pressure the president to overturn the decision.

California has not fully recovered from a lingering recession, and the state accounted for 88,000 of the 150,000 jobs lost nationwide due to base closings in the past seven years.

"With the Southern California unemployment rate exceeding the national level, the only option is for the president to look at the list, and for the president to give it back and say 'People, do your homework,' " said Louis F. Rodriguez, president of a union local at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, which is slated for closing.

Mr. Clinton cannot tinker with the list. He can return it to the commission, or he can pass it along to Congress, which must vote on the whole package up or down.

In 1988, the Defense Department prepared a list, approved by Congress, that closed 86 bases and realigned 13 others. In 1991, under a similar law but with the current commission process in place, 34 bases were closed and 48 more were downsized or modified. In 1993, 130 bases were closed and 45 were realigned.

This year, the commission added several bases to the Pentagon's hit list, including McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif.

The Air Force has five such air logistics centers -- McClellan employs 12,000 people -- and recommended none of them for closing. The commission settled on McClellan as the logical base to shut down.

Officials in California, where unemployment has exceeded the national average for a decade, were furious; White House officials, who fret about California's 54 electoral votes, got nervous.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary William J. Perry asked his senior planners for a review of the commission's work. White House press secretary Mike McCurry said that the president would then review the issue with Mr. Perry.

The president has until July 15 to approve the list and send it to Congress or send it back to the commission. But he may find that it doesn't get easier with time.

In 1991, President George Bush held onto the recommendations for a couple of days. One of the stories told around the commission offices is that when he left office, he gently advised Mr. Clinton, "Don't hang on to those base-closing recommendations too long."

Two years ago, Mr. Clinton didn't -- they were on his desk less than 12 hours.

"The only things different this time," said one commission official, "are those California bases -- and the upcoming presidential election."

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