Pentagon defends Calif. jobs


WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department presented President Clinton yesterday with a plan to save 12,000 military jobs in vote-rich California, but it did not seek to reverse the recent recommendation to close six installations in Maryland.

After reviewing the proposals of the base-closing commission, Defense Secretary William J. Perry suggested to Mr. Clinton how he could protect the highly trained work force at McClellan Air Force Base in California.

Such a move would bolster his political standing in a state that he probably needs to carry to win re-election next year.

Under the plan, worked out among the Defense Department, the White House and the commission, the Pentagon would accept the closure of McClellan -- which the Air Force wanted to keep open.

But the Pentagon would save jobs at McClellan by directing some defense contracts there to California aerospace companies. Initially, the commission had proposed to move most of the McClellan work out of state, to Tobyhanna Army Base in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Perry presented his proposal to Mr. Clinton at the White House yesterday. Around the table were Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; John P. White, the deputy defense secretary; Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser; and Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff.

Pentagon officials said they expect Mr. Clinton to respond to the proposal by week's end. A White House official confirmed: "It is his inclination to move quickly on this."

Chuck Pizer, a spokesman for the base-closing panel, said the commission's initial report remains "very much alive," pending Mr. Clinton's acceptance or rejection of it.

The commissioners, he said, have been told of the Pentagon's concerns about the report and of the plan for saving the California jobs. But he said the commission would not meet formally until Mr. Clinton has responded to its proposals.

The commission last week proposed a similar job-saving plan to offset the effects of its proposed closing of Kelly Air Force Base in Texas, a move that threatened to increase unemployment among Hispanics in the San Antonio area by 70 percent. Forty percent of Hispanics employed by the Air Force work at Kelly, and the commission said in its report that the local Hispanic middle class would be devastated.

The commission's report said the Defense Department should make it a priority to allocate defense contracts to companies now working at Kelly.

The commission added the McClellan and Kelly air bases to the Pentagon's proposed closure list, rejecting the Air Force's contention that it would be cheaper to shrink the bases than to close them.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, opposes the Pentagon's job-saving initiative for McClellan. An aide in her Capitol Hill office yesterday said she felt the plan still would leave thousands of McClellan jobs in jeopardy.

She also believes, the aide said, that all six military bases in California targeted for closure this year should be excluded from the list because the state's weak economy was hit hard by previous rounds of base closings. The aide said Ms. Feinstein is urging Mr. Clinton to reject the commission's entire list.

A Pentagon official denied that political considerations in anticipation of next year's presidential election had motivated the job-saving plan for California.

"If you look at the kind of work they do there, it is very technical work, requiring long training," he said. "If you moved the work to a different location, you either have to move these highly trained individuals or you have to retrain workers, which is enormously expensive.

"Yes, indeed, there is justification for doing this that doesn't have anything to do with politics whatsoever," the defense official said.

Mr. Clinton has until July 15 to send the commission's recommendations, unchanged, to Congress, or return them to the commission with suggested changes. The commission would then have until Aug. 15 to accept or reject the president's proposals.

According to a senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be named, the effort to save the California jobs will be the department's only suggested amendment to the commission's report. The report last week targeted 132 bases for closure or reorganization, with estimated savings of $19.3 billion over the next 20 years but at a cost of 93,565 jobs.

This all but seals the fate of the six Maryland bases, unless Mr. Clinton rejects the entire list and no action is taken on it by Sept. 1, when the law authorizing the latest round of base closures expires. This is a remote possibility.

In the three previous rounds of base closings -- in 1988, 1991 and 1993 -- the commission's lists were approved in their entirety.

Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, wrote to Mr. Clinton last week urging him to reconsider the proposal to close the targeted Maryland bases, which provide more than 1,200 civilian jobs in the state.

They are: Fort Ritchie, in Western Maryland; the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Annapolis and White Oak; the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda; the Army Publications Distribution Center in Middle River; and a defense investigations office at Fort Holabird.

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