Senate heads toward political fight over new base closing round

U.S. Navy / John Narewski file photo

Attack submarines USS Virginia, bottom, and USS Connecticut at Naval Submarine Base New London in 2007.

Washington – The Senate is readying for a showdown over whether the nation needs another round of base closings – a move that could once again put Naval Submarine Base New London on the defensive.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., have sponsored a base closing amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill would  authorize hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending next year,

The senators, who are respectively the chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, want to save money by shutting and realigning bases to shrink excess capacity in the nation’s military installations.

A 2016 Pentagon report claims that 22 percent of the military’s infrastructure is unnecessary.

It said the Army has the most excess infrastructure, 33 percent, followed by the Air Force with 32 percent, the Defense Logistics Agency with 12 percent and the Navy with just 7 percent.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said that closing excess installations would save $10 billion over a five-year period.

Former President Obama also supported a new BRAC to save money.

But, in large part because of resistance in Congress, there hasn’t been a round of base closings since 2005, when Naval Submarine Base New London narrowly escaped being on the final shutdown list.

McCain has said opposition to another round of base closings demonstrates “cowardice.”

Still, approval of his Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) amendment, which is expected to be voted on by the end of the week, is not assured.

“I’m going to oppose the BRAC amendment because there is no need for it or predicting what that BRAC would do,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The submarine base in Groton is home to 15 nuclear submarines and generates about $4.5 billion a year for Connecticut’s economy when employment, sale of goods and services and other factors, including housing, are considered.

The base was on the BRAC closing list twice — in 1993 as well as 2005. In the end however, arguments to keep the base open swayed the independent panel of base closing commissioners empowered to draft a final list of closings.

“We’ve seen this movie before and we were able to stop it before the final scene,” Blumenthal said.

McCain and Reed, however, propose a different process this time.

Under their plan, the list of potential base closures and realignments would be compiled by the Pentagon and reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, not a panel of independent commissioners. The list would then be certified by the president and submitted to Congress by the fall of 2019. There would be a 60-day public comment period and, finally, an up or down vote by Congress.

The Pentagon and the president support a new BRAC round.

Lucian Niemeyer, the new assistant defense secretary for energy, installations and environment, said base closures could not only save money but help the military reorganize for the next generation of military technologies.

“For us, it’s not just a matter finding efficiencies — it’s a matter of improving military value and effectiveness and lethality of our forces,” Niemeyer said at a Heritage Foundation forum last week. “That’s why we continue to push hard and we support the Senate’s attempt to try to get a BRAC authorization started in 2019…”

Uncertain support for a new BRAC

Blumenthal said he believed support for the McCain-Reed amendment “falls short right now,” but he also said he did not know what McCain would do to whip up votes.

There is bipartisan support for McCain to have a win on the defense authorization bill he is responsible for pushing through the Senate.

McCain has been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.  The Arizona senator will continue radiation and chemotherapy at the National Institutes of Health as part of his treatment “while maintaining a regular work schedule in the United States Senate,” according to a statement released by his office on Tuesday.

But senators are also aware of the impact of a BRAC on their constituents, although in the realignment process some bases would grow with the missions of those that are shuttered.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he’s definitely a ‘no’ vote and that there are many other senators opposed to a new BRAC round.

“I’m not sure why they would want to do something that would split both caucuses,” Murphy said of the BRAC amendment’s sponsors.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down, 175-248, an amendment offered by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that that would have stripped the House defense authorization bill of its ban on a new round of base closing.

If the McCain-Graham amendment becomes part of the Senate’s defense authorization bill, the issue would be a part of joint House-Senate discussions over a final bill

Rep. Joe Courtney, whose 2nd congressional district includes Naval Submarine Base New London, said that, in the face of new global threats, the Pentagon “has failed to make a convincing case” for the need to shrink capacity at the nation’s military bases.

“I don’t think we should be reducing our footprint with what’s going on in the world,” he said.

Courtney also said it’s difficult for the Pentagon to predict how much money closing a base actually will save.

He said the “near death experience” suffered by the Groton submarine base showed  “calculations by the Pentagon were way off.”

Courtney also said “there were glaring errors” in the BRAC reports, including the omission of some of the costs of shifting Naval Submarine Base New London’s missions to Georgia’s Naval Submarine Base King’s Bay.

He also said the elimination of an independent base closing panel would intensify the chances of politicking and “horsetrading” in the process.

“It just seems that that would inevitably be the case,” Courtney said.

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