New BRAC round hits dead end

Tuesday - 6/11/2013, 7:40pm EDT

RICHARD LARDNER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Another round of military base closings has hit a dead end.

The Senate Armed Services readiness subcommittee on Tuesday approved legislation rejecting the Defense Department's request to shutter installations and facilities in the United States that are no longer needed as the military branches cut the number of troops in uniform.

The House Armed Services Committee last week also said "no" to more base closings, and even took the step of adding a provision barring the Pentagon from even planning for another round.

The refusals by the House and Senate effectively ensure that a final defense policy bill approved by Congress for the 2014 fiscal year won't give the department permission to close excess bases even as lawmakers clamor for ways to cut the federal deficit.

Lawmakers also have rebuffed the Defense Department's attempts to rein in spending on the costly military health care program by increasing enrollment fees for military retirees and their dependents. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale warned during a separate congressional hearing Tuesday that the military would have to cut about 25,000 troops to offset the expense if it can't slow the growth of the health care program by 2018.

Rejection of the base closing request in the House defense policy bill along with several other provisions limiting President Barack Obama's authority prompted the White House to threaten a veto of the measure.

Specifically, the White House complained about provisions that would restrict the president's ability to transfer terror suspects from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to implement a nuclear reduction treaty with Russia.

On base closings, Defense Department leaders have argued the troop drawdown will leave them with more installations than they need. The money saved by closing unused facilities can be spent on training and other essential operations.

But military installations are often the economic lifeblood of the communities that surround them and any discussion about shutting bases is a political hot button.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the chairwoman of the readiness subcommittee, said the upfront costs of starting a new round of closures are too high.

The Pentagon's budget for the 2014 fiscal year sought $2.4 billion over five years to cover the initial expense of base closings. Decisions on which bases to close would start to be made in 2015 and implemented a year later, according to the military's plan.

But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the readiness subcommittee's top Republican, said the last round of base closings in 2005 ended up costing $13 billion more than estimated.

"To put that in perspective, that's three fewer nuclear submarines or seven fewer destroyers for our undersized Navy fleet," Ayotte said

To help offset the negative impact of the automatic spending cuts on the readiness of the armed forces, the readiness subcommittee trimmed $1.3 billion from unspecified military construction projects and another $400 million in "excess" spending for operations and maintenance. The $1.7 billion total is being "put back into critical readiness accounts for all the services in an attempt to restore flying hours, steaming days, unit training and essential depot maintenance in our hangars and shipyards," Shaheen said.

The automatic cuts, known as sequestration in Washington speak, kicked in March 1 and are the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade.

The Pentagon must reduce its 2013 budget by roughly $41 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The reductions have forced the military to furlough hundreds of thousands of civilian workers and scale back essential training and maintenance programs.

If sequestration remains in effect, the Pentagon likely will have to cut $52 billion from its 2014 budget to meet the numbers dictated by the law, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

"And, if there are no changes, continued sequestration will result in roughly $500 billion in additional reductions to defense spending over the next ten years," Hagel said.

Separately, the military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill Tuesday, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee pushed back against calls by House Republicans to build a missile defense site on the East Coast of the United States to expand the country's defenses from a potential ballistic missile attack by Iran. The House measure would require the site at a yet-to-be- determined location to be ready by 2018.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., released a June 10 letter from senior U.S. military officials in which they wrote that there was "no validated military requirement" to establish a site on the east coast. Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, and Lt. Gen. Richard P. Formica, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, wrote that there are less expensive alternatives to a proposed East Coast site, which has been estimated at costing at least $3 billion.


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