Clinton has until July 15 to resolve political dilemma of base ++ closing list


WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the panel overseeing military base closings yesterday defended the proposed hit list, which is facing possible rejection by the White House.

The commission's recommendation to close or change operations at 132 installations -- six of them in Maryland -- will arrive on President Clinton's desk today.

The chairman, Alan Dixon, told a Capitol Hill news conference that the commission's list would save $19.3 billion in defense spending over the next 20 years, $323 million more than would the Pentagon's original closure proposals.

But the commission's action creates for Mr. Clinton a dilemma: to accept the list, which delivers a harsh economic blow to California, a state vital to his re-election prospects; or to reject the list and risk being accused of politicizing a process designed be politics-proof, while also jeopardizing the defense savings.

"By interjecting politics into this process for the first time to get votes in California, the president will open up Pandora's box and cause the whole process to unravel," said Rep. Peter I. Blute, a Massachusetts Republican.

For Mr. Clinton, the key question is whether, 16 months before the next presidential election, he can risk undermining his electoral appeal in California, which will lose 42,000 jobs under the proposals.

Mr. Clinton is under pressure to reject the list from lawmakers in states that would suffer most. Rejection of the list would give politicians a last chance to try to save their home-state bases. But politicians from states less affected by the closures are urging Mr. Clinton to endorse the list, warning that rejection risks politicizing the entire process.

Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, wrote to Mr. Clinton yesterday, asking him to consider the "severe economic harm" facing the state from the proposed military closures and the loss of more than 100,000 other jobs through other federal cutbacks in the state.

Noting that the Maryland facilities focused on research and development, and support services, they wrote: "Many of the smart technologies that have given our men and women in uniform an indisputable advantage were developed in Maryland laboratories."

The six targeted Maryland installations, employing 1,802 workers with an additional 1,482 jobs indirectly dependent on them, are Fort Ritchie in Western Maryland; the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Annapolis and White Oak; the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda; a defense investigation unit at Fort Holabird; and the Army Publications Distribution Center in Middle River.

Mr. Clinton has until July 15 to accept the list in its entirety and forward it to Congress, or to reject it and give his reasons. If the list is sent back, the commission must respond by Aug. 15. It could resubmit the original list, accept any changes recommended by Mr. Clinton, or rewrite the entire list.

Mr. Clinton would then have until Sept. 1 to decide what to do. After that date, the law on base closures expires, the list would become moot, and all the bases on it, including those in Maryland, would stay open.

Mr. Dixon said yesterday that while, technically, a rejection of the list would open everything on it for reconsideration, there would not be time to give communities another opportunity to argue for their bases.

The best chance the Maryland facilities have for survival appears to be the remote possibility that no action will be taken by Sept. 1.

"It's an absolute certainty if we don't resolve this by Sept. 1, the ballgame is over," Mr. Dixon said.

But Mr. Dixon played down the prospect that the clock will run out: "I think it's going to be all right. I think when honorable people do a job concerning a thing of this importance, the thing comes out all right."

He warned that if the clock ran out on the process, there would be no more base closures, although the military still had surplus installations. "It will die forever," Mr. Dixon said. "There is a lot at risk here. I don't come here to holler wolf."

The commission is recommending another round of base closures in 2001. Mr. Dixon said that after the rounds of 1988, 1991, 1993 and this year, Congress would not have the political "stomach" for another round before then.

The commission created the furor over this year's list by rejecting 19 of the Pentagon's 146 recommendations, and adding nine of its own. That threw the Defense Department's long-term savings plan and reorganization out of kilter.

The Pentagon is busy crunching the numbers to see if it can live with the commission's list. It is expected to make a recommendation to Mr. Clinton on whether to accept or reject the list, mainly on military grounds, as early as this weekend.

The two most controversial changes made by the commission were adding to the list McClellan Air Force Base in California and Kelly Air Force Base in Texas. Those are two of the Air Force's five major maintenance depots. The Air Force wanted to keep all five open, arguing that it was cheaper to scale down operations at all five than to close any of them.

Mr. Dixon said yesterday that closing the two depots would produce higher savings and lower costs than projected by the Air Force.

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