Clinton angrily accepts, attacks base-closing list


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton accepted yesterday the recommendations of a base-closing commission to shut down 79 military installations -- including six in Maryland -- but not before launching into a finger-pointing, fist-pounding tirade against some of the proposals on the list.

"This is an outrage!" he declared, insisting that California and Texas had been treated unfairly by the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

Later in the day, the president sent a letter to the chairman of the commission, Alan J. Dixon, a former Democratic senator from Illinois who had been chosen by Mr. Clinton, saying that he was for warding the list to Congress "with reluctance."

Congress may approve or reject the list -- it may not amend it -- in an unusual procedure that acknowledges the political difficulty of closing such installations, which provide numerous jobs in their communities. Closing the 79 bases and scaling back activities at 26 others would save taxpayers about $20 billion over the next 20 years.

What set the president off during a steamy Rose Garden ceremony was a question about criticism that the White House had injected presidential politics into the process, supposedly because the closing of a California Air Force base could complicate his chances of carrying that state in the 1996 election.

"Let's look at the facts here," he said, seeming to grow more angry and animated as he went on. "Where is the politics? This base-closing commission made far more changes . . . than any of the three previous base-closing plans."

It was not immediately clear who the president's audience was. At times, he seemed to be speaking to voters in California and Texas, which, as the nation's first- and third-most populous states, are rich in electoral votes.

But he also sounded angry at the news media -- and at those who have accused him of politicizing the process.

In addition, he attacked the commission itself, which he appointed, but which he said did not adequately consider the economic consequences of its decisions.

"There has been a calculated, deliberate attempt to turn this into a political thing," the president said, "and to obscure the real economic impact of their recommendations in San Antonio and California, which were made solely so they could put back a lot of other things."

Mr. Clinton singled out two Air Force maintenance depots -- McClellan near Sacramento, Calif., and Kelly near San Antonio.

The White House was particularly dismayed when McClellan made the list.

The closing of McClellan threatens about 8,000 civilian jobs. The closing of Kelly would cost 11,000 jobs. The Pentagon has promised to try to save many of the jobs by transferring them to local private contractors.

Surprised by vehemence

Because they had been hearing from White House officials and California politicians in the past two weeks, officials of the base-closing commission were braced for criticism. Even so, some members said they were surprised by the president's vehemence.

"Nobody here disputes California is taking a hit in this round," said Wade Nelson, a staff member of the commission. "Beyond that, everything else he said is inaccurate."

Mr. Clinton asserted that this commission had deviated from normal practice more than had previous commissions by adding bases to be closed that had not been recommended by the Pentagon.

But, in fact, commission officials said, the panel added only nine bases to the list, while the previous commission added 18.

Mr. Clinton also said that the job losses would devastate the economies of California and Texas. At one point he said the losses "could virtually wipe out the Hispanic middle class" in San Antonio.

Economic forecasters in Texas scoffed at the notion that the closing of one military installation could sink San Antonio's economy.

And in California, economists such as Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, had a similar reaction. Mr. Levy said that not only can California, with 30 million people, absorb the job losses at McClellan, but so can Sacramento itself.

But California lawmakers have been beating up on the president -- and continued to do so yesterday. Late in the day, his spokesman, Mike McCurry, conceded that politics did play a role in Mr. Clinton's expressions of concern about the affected communities.

"Is that partly because of concern of what the political fallout from that is?" Mr. McCurry said. "It would be disingenuous to suggest not."

Impact on Maryland

In Maryland, acceptance of the list by Congress would seal the fate of six facilities, causing the loss of 1,800 direct jobs and 1,482 indirect jobs, at 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 investigative office at Fort Holabird.

Maryland's legislators immediately looked on the bright side, seeing the sites that will be vacated by the military over the coming five years as potential development zones for everything from prisons to research centers, industrial parks to tourist attractions.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Western Maryland Republican who tried to win a reprieve for Fort Ritchie, conceded that the battle was over.

"We are proceeding as if this is going to be accepted by Congress," he said last night.

A local transition committee was already considering development options, he said, adding, "We have an opportunity to turn what might be a loss into a gain."

Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, both critics of the commission's list, said that they would work with communities to overcome the economic impact and personal hardships the closures would bring.

In Montgomery County, Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella was pondering the use of the White Oak Naval Warfare Center zTC as a research park or, perhaps, a facility for another federal agency.

"A lot of things could be done," she said. "The community is very active, and they will move with the need. They are technologically experienced and educated. I think they are going to be pursuing all kinds of facilities."

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