Clinton OK expected on bases


WASHINGTON -- After agonizing for more than a week, President Clinton is expected to approve the recommendations of an independent commission on military bases now that the Pentagon has been assured that it has the authority to keep thousands of jobs in the area of a California Air Force base, administration officials said yesterday.

Mr. Clinton had been considering rejecting the commission's recommendation to close McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento because the loss of the installation's 11,000 military and civilian jobs would hurt the economy of a large state crucial to his 1996 campaign hopes.

That prompted complaints from Republicans and some commission members that the White House was meddling in a process set up to insulate decisions about base closings from political influence.

No final decision has been made. But in an exchange of letters late Saturday, the commission's chairman, Alan J. Dixon, a former Democratic senator from Illinois, assured Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White that the panel's recommendations could allow the Pentagon to turn over all but about 800 jobs at McClellan to local private contractors. Pentagon lawyers had demanded written assurances that this was what the panel intended.

That may assuage the White House and let Mr. Clinton claim victory for California, but it carries a political price. Some commission members said the administration hurt the integrity of the base-closing process by having Mr. White, the secretaries of the Air Force and the Navy, and other Pentagon political appointees call panel members in the past 48 hours to express concerns over the intent of the panel's recommendation on McClellan.

"That's why we're getting a little angry," said Joe Robles Jr., a retired Army general and member of the commission who received calls from Mr. White and a senior Army official. "It looks like they're just trying to score Brownie points with California."

Senior administration aides denied playing politics with a process that has remained largely apolitical through three earlier rounds of decisions on base closings. They said they were just trying to clarify what the eight-member commission really meant to say on McClellan, because this is the last scheduled round of closings.

"I wanted to understand what each was thinking, and we have an obligation to talk to them," Mr. White said in a telephone interview.

But in none of the earlier rounds has an administration hemmed and hawed so openly over a panel's findings. In 1988, 1991 and 1993, the White House quickly endorsed the commission's work and sent it to Congress, which speedily approved the findings.

"This dithering has hurt the president more than anything," said a commission member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. California politicians also are upset because they say that the assurances do not guarantee that the jobs will stay in the area. By law Mr. Clinton has until Saturday to approve the commission's list or send it back with specific objections.

If the president were to send it back, the panel would have until Aug. 15 to make changes. At that point, Mr. Clinton would have to accept or reject the list in its entirety.

Mr. Clinton met for 90 minutes Saturday with Defense Secretary William J. Perry; Mr. White; Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff; and Anthony Lake, the national security adviser.

Much of the meeting focused on how to keep McClellan's jobs in private hands after the base closed, a concept called "privatization in place."

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