Senators balk at Pentagon's plan to close more bases

Congress appears likely to reject the Obama administration's request for more military base closures — for a second year — as Republican and Democratic senators on Wednesday rejected the Pentagon’s claim the plan makes fiscal sense. 

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The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee say they don’t support new base closures, and the idea was roundly rejected Wednesday by the heads of the panel’s Readiness subcommittee, which handles bases and infrastructure.

“I don’t think the majority of the members can be convinced at this point,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former ranking member of the Armed Services panel, told reporters Wednesday.

The fight over closing bases highlights the difficulty the Pentagon faces in convincing Congress to accept politically unpopular measures to curb costs, even as defense budgets are being squeezed by sequestration.

The base closures might be the proposal getting the most attention, but it’s hardly the only case in which Congress is poised to reject the Pentagon’s budget-cutting plans.

The Pentagon has also asked, for instance, for increases and new fees for its healthcare programs. Similar measures were also rejected last year in the annual Pentagon policy bill.

The Obama administration’s request for a new round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) in 2015 faces stiff opposition because closing bases would lead to major disruptions for the communities they surround. Local economies can take a substantial economic hit when bases are closed — as can the lawmakers who represent the affected district.  

In last year’s budget request, the Pentagon did not include any money to cover the up-front costs that come with closing bases. Lawmakers quickly labeled the request as unserious, and it did not gain any traction.

This year, the Pentagon included more than $2 billion to cover the up-front costs for the next five years, but senators have also questioned that buy-in because no funds were included in the 2014 budget.

Republican House aides also question the level of White House support for the plan. They told The Hill earlier this month that a new round of closures would only happen if President Obama made a veto threat.

That was how the last round was authorized in 2005, the aides said.

Obama acknowledged the political pitfalls of closing bases during last year’s campaign, telling a Virginia TV station that he did not feel base closures were appropriate at the time.

Some lawmakers who are opposed to a new round of base closures say they are still open to hearing the Pentagon’s argument.

“I think it’s very, very unlikely,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Wednesday. “But nonetheless, I can’t say I’m not willing to listen to evidence.”

The Pentagon’s pitch, however, has fallen flat on Capitol Hill so far.

The House held a hearing last month to pan the idea of closing bases before the request had even been made in the budget.

At the Senate panel’s hearing Wednesday, Readiness subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and ranking member Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) made nearly identical arguments laying out why they opposed domestic closures.

“I continue to believe now is not the time to spend billions of dollars on another BRAC round, especially as DOD grounds combat aircraft and cancels ship deployments due to sequestration,” Shaheen said.

“It’s not clear to me how we can be confident there are any real cost savings to be gained from another BRAC round,” Ayotte added.

Critics of base closures say that paying the up-front costs would not be a wise move when the current budget is shrinking under sequestration.

They question the Pentagon’s claims of savings by pointing to the 2005 BRAC round, which cost $14 billion more than anticipated, and argue that further cuts to infrastructure in foreign bases should be made before domestic installations are shuttered.

The Pentagon counters that the military already has excess infrastructure in the U.S., which will only grow as the number of service members are reduced.

“We’re going to have holes, we’re going to have empty buildings and we’re going to have places we could move other units into,” said Katherine Hammack, an assistant Army secretary.

John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary for installations and environment, told senators that a new round of base closures would not look like 2005, because that round came at a time when the size of the military — and its budget — was growing.

Still, Conger acknowledged the uphill fight the Pentagon faces, even as he tried to make the case that Congress should accept more base closures.

When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) suggested the executive branch propose specific installations to close rather than use a commission, Kaine said the Virginia legislature had called him “heartless” when he was governor and proposed budget cuts.

Conger said he could relate.

“I am sympathetic to the ‘heartless’ comments,” he said. “As you might imagine, being the person to have to come up to the Hill to sell BRAC, I’m not going to win lot of lot of popularity contests.”