Obama campaigned against military base closures now in his budget

President Obama released a defense budget Wednesday calling for new military base closures — less than a year after he said on the campaign trail that the closings were not in the cards.

Obama said in a July 2012 interview with a Virginia television station that he did not support a new round of base closures through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

“You know, I don’t think now is the time for BRAC, we just went through some base closings and the strategy that we have does not call for that,” Obama told WAVY.

But the Pentagon’s 2014 budget request included a proposal for a new round of base closures starting in 2015, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said was an important way to generate long-term budget savings.

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National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that the base-closing request was in the budget because the Pentagon believes excess infrastructure still exists, and that it's important to achieve efficiency savings in the tight budget environment.  

"That process would need to take into account economic circumstances of communities, as the president suggested in his statement last year," Hayden said. "It is important to note that under this proposal for a FY 2015 BRAC round, the actual closure process would not even begin until 2016, after the economy is projected to have more fully recovered."

A new round of base closures faces broad, bipartisan opposition in Congress, and without the weight of the White House, new base closures are almost certainly a non-starter, aides say.

A GOP aide said that the only reason the last round of closures occurred in 2005 was that then-President George W. Bush threatened to veto the defense authorization bill.

Members of Congress are loath to support restarting the base-closing commission because it can hurt their districts, resulting in lost jobs and a hit to economic growth.

It’s also politically unpopular; had Obama supported closing bases during his reelection campaign, it could have hurt him in states with a large military presence, like Virginia.

The Pentagon requested two rounds of base closures in the budget request last year, and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pleaded with lawmakers that it was a difficult but necessary measure to achieve long-term savings.

The request went nowhere and was rejected by both the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

The House panel this year launched a pre-emptive strike against base closures with a pre-budget hearing last month in which lawmakers slammed the necessity of cutting infrastructure.

“I cannot imagine in my mind any basis on which Congress would pursue a BRAC,” House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said after the hearing.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters Tuesday that he didn’t think the Pentagon would pursue base closings, knowing what the prospects were.

“I think they would know they’re not going to get it, so why put it in?” Levin said.

Lawmakers say that the Pentagon’s claims of savings through closing bases are exaggerated, pointing to the 2005 round from which savings have yet to be achieved.

They also argue that the up-front costs for closing bases make it a bad policy decision during a time when the Pentagon is trimming its belt.

The Pentagon counters that the up-front costs are ultimately dwarfed by the amount of long-term savings that come from cutting infrastructure. The military already had more than 20 percent excess capacity in 2005, and that will only grow as troop levels are reduced, Defense officials say.

This year’s budget includes $2.4 billion over five years in order to cover up-front costs. That money was not in last year’s budget proposal, prompting lawmakers to quickly label the request unserious.

“This process is an imperfect process,” Hagel said at a budget briefing Wednesday. “There are up-front costs for BRAC, and this budget adds $2.4 billion over the next five years to pay them, but in the long term, there are significant savings.”

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters Wednesday that he didn’t know yet whether Congress would accept the base closures, but said it would be “irresponsible” not to include it as a cost-saving measure.

“It seems to me that we have to keep asking,” Hale said. “We know we need it, and it’s the only effective way to consolidate infrastructure.”

— This story was updated at 3:16 p.m.