First the BRAC List, Then the Recriminations

Posted May 13, 2005 at 6:23pm

No sooner had the Pentagon released its list of recommended base closings on Friday than the first political barbs were exchanged.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee struck first, trumpeting the fact that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) — in his heated race last year against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) — had played up his relationship with the White House and Republican leaders as a way to save Ellsworth Air Force Base from the chopping block.

Unfortunately for the DSCC, and luckily for Thune, he has five and a half years to weather the fallout if the base is ultimately closed.

Other Members are not so lucky.

Of Senators up for re-election next year, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) faces the most bleak prospects — a possible net loss of 8,586 jobs — if the independent nine-person Base Realignment and Closure Commission follows the Pentagon’s advice.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) comes next with almost 7,000 jobs potentially lost, followed by freshman Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) with 3,679.

Though news of a home-state base closure is never good for politicians, it’s also not sufficient to keep a Member from re-election.

The BRAC process was specifically designed to insulate base-closing decisions from political considerations, said Paul Hirsch, a one-time BRAC staffer who now represents clients in the BRAC arena.

“For example, why would the administration want to hurt [Connecticut Rep.] Rob Simmons, who’s a Republican?” said Hirsch, president of Madison Government Affairs. “Why would the administration want to hurt [GOP Sen. Susan] Collins and Snowe in Maine? Why would they want to hurt [Sen. Pete] Domenici [R-N.M.]? These decisions are based on military issues. I don’t see how anybody can draw any political conclusions to this list.”

Jack Deschauer, a partner at Patton Boggs and a retired naval officer who served as director of Senate affairs inside the Pentagon during a previous BRAC round, noted that “a base doesn’t get closed because of the lack of effort on the part of whoever the elected leaders are, Senators, Congresspeople, mayors.”

Still, he added, “there’s no way that in the next election your opponent can’t make a big deal about it.”

On Friday, the day of the announcement, the Democrats took the most swipes. They accused Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) of complicity in the potential demise of suburban Philadelphia’s Willow Grove Naval Air Station and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) of not having the clout to save the naval station in his hometown of Pascagoula.

“Santorum Enabled Base Closures in Pennsylvania,” read the headline of a Pennsylvania Democratic Party release.

“The responsibility for Willow Grove Naval Station lies squarely at the feet of Rick Santorum,” state Democratic Party Chairman and Rep. T.J. Rooney said in the statement. “Santorum not only voted to allow the base closures to move forward but made negative comments about Willow Grove that gave political cover to people deciding whether it should be shut down.”

In Lott’s case, the DSCC noted that President Bush “thwarted” the former Majority Leader’s attempts to end-run the process by appointing a chairman to the commission during a Congressional recess, thereby rendering Lott’s hold on the nomination useless.

The committee also pointed out that one of Lott’s home-state papers editorialized that Mississippi likely would not fare as well without Lott in a leadership position.

Majority Leaders are allowed to appoint two members to the BRAC Commission.

But Democrats, still smarting from Thune’s dramatic and narrow ouster of Daschle last year, concentrated most of their firepower on Thune.

The DSCC reminded recipients of its message that a full-page, pro-Thune ad in the Rapid City Journal before the election read: “John Thune will have the ear of the President and the Republicans who will nominate even members of the nine-member base closure commission. A vote for Tom Daschle may well be a vote to close Ellsworth.”

The DSCC then accused Thune of flip-flopping when he told CNN on Friday afternoon that the process is purposely designed to be apolitical.

“If there was a political component in this process we had that covered,” Thune said. “Frankly the law is very clear and very plain that this is insulated from politics.”

The Republican campaign committees refrained from issuing counter-releases targeting Democratic Members, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee trying to seize the high road.

“This blatant political opportunism demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the BRAC process by partisan hacks,” NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said. “It’s also downright shameless that the Democrats cannot control their giddiness and are playing politics with potential job losses.”

The DSCC said Republicans are trying to have it both ways.

“If that’s not the pot calling the kettle back, I don’t know what is,” spokesman Phil Singer said. “One of the central tenets of John Thune’s campaign was his political connections to the White House, and he directly linked it to the base-closure process.”

Political observers agreed that it is too early to tell what effect, if any, the Pentagon’s proposed list will have on next year’s elections. While the impact will most likely vary contest by contest, the issue could cause problems for some Members.

“I was surprised at the sort of tepid response by Santorum,” said Terry Madonna, a public policy professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Santorum’s presumptive opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D), can be expected to use the issue to his advantage, Madonna said. Pennsylvania is 45th in job creation, so Santorum likely will suffer some for his votes to move the BRAC process forward.

“There’s a couple of arguments Casey will make against Santorum,” he said, suggesting that one will be that Santorum has “been insufficiently concerned with and active in promoting the Pennsylvania economy.”

But Santorum has survived tough opposition in the past and got a boost from a joint press conference with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell on Friday, outlining their efforts to save bases in the Keystone State.

In fact, in his official statement about trying to keep Pennsylvania bases open, Santorum chose to highlight not fellow Republican Sen. Arlen Specter but rather Rendell, who spent much of his tenure as Philadelphia mayor trying (unsuccessfully) to stave off closure of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Democrats think Republican Members have more to lose on the issue, since the GOP currently controls both Congress and the White House.

Moreover, many Republicans campaigned last year on the theme that they would have more clout in a GOP-dominated Washington than their Democratic opponents.

In Alaska — which just chose Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) over former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) last year, largely because Sen. Ted Stevens (R) told voters he needed a Republican colleague to help make things happen in the nation’s capital — 4,619 jobs could be lost under the current proposal.

Nevertheless, base closings will hit red and blue states alike, though the states and districts of Congressional leaders seemed to fare better in the initial round than those represented by rank-and-file Members and even committee chairmen.

Maryland stands to be the biggest winner, gaining almost 9,300 jobs, followed by Texas, the home of both Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R), which could add 6,150 more military personnel.

Tennessee and Nevada, home to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D), respectively could gain 1,088 and 1,059 jobs.

Illinois could lose almost 2,700 jobs but none in the district of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Ditto with California, which has 2,018 jobs at risk because of realignment but none in the home district of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) and no major installation on the chopping block.

One political observer noted that it is folly to predict what will sway elections 18 months ahead of time.

John Tomlinson of Mississippi State University quoted Yogi Berra when asked how the news may affect Lott: “It’s not over ’til it’s over. This is just the first round.”

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.