The Clinton administration's call for another round of military base closures essentially died Thursday, thanks largely to charges that it meddled to prevent Utah's Hill Air Force Base from acquiring work from a California base that has already been ordered to close.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 10-8 to reject an administration request for another round of base closures in 2001.Earlier on Wednesday, the House National Security Committee refused even to consider the measure as it marked up its own separate version of the annual defense authorization bill.
Defense Secretary William Cohen has argued for months that another round of closures is needed to save money now spent on unnecessary bases and to prevent cutbacks he says will otherwise come in weapons, training and personnel.
That is always a hard sell during an election year when some congressmen do not want to endanger hometown bases. The possibility became next to impossible with late charges that the administration has continued meddling in base closures for political gain.
In the worst timing possible for the administration, Utah members of Congress last week obtained a memo between defense officials. The memo said the White House was pressuring to help a bidder keep jobs at McClellan, located in Sacramento, Calif., preventing Utah's Hill from winning them. McClellan has been ordered to close.
President Clinton promised during his 1996 campaign to keep jobs in California, a vote-rich state for him, despite orders from a base closure commission to shut it down.
Congress and Clinton have fought for years about it. Last year Congress passed, and Clinton signed, a law saying bids for McClellan's work should consider only price and not the location where the work will be done.
But then, Hill unexpectedly teamed with Boeing to bid for the work. The administration had thought Boeing would bid separately to keep work in California. And the memo shows the administration was scrambling to find another industry possibility to keep the work in California.
The memo from Acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said Clinton's deputy chief of staff, John Podesta, wants defense officials to encourage Lock-heed Martin " to bid to win the work and to perform the work at Sacramento."
It then lists specific points of action the military should take to help Lockheed Martin win, including clearing the way for favorable leases in Sacramento.
The memo also makes clear, Utah members say, that Lockheed was already apparently planning to bid anyway but not necessarily to keep work in Sacramento if it won. The memo said, "It is Sacramento's uncertainty that is being translated into White House interest."
Because of the memo, Cohen earlier this week announced he would have an outside review of the bidding for the work to ensure it is fair. Peters recused himself from any further involvement in the process.
Utah congressmen, including Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Jim Hansen, both Republicans, said the damage has already been done. Others worry that the episode shows the current administration cannot be trusted to implement closure of military bases fairly.