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Legislators scramble to reassure constituents

From California to Connecticut, politicians scrambled to contain the fallout from the Pentagon's blueprint for the first round of base closings in a decade.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Already locked in a tough campaign for reelection next year, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) infuriated some in the community around Naval Air Station Willow Grove last month with comments about the base that were interpreted as critical.

Yesterday, Willow Grove popped up on the Pentagon's base-closure hit list, sending Santorum's opponents on the attack and the senator into a defensive crouch. Within three hours, he was standing before television cameras outside the base, vowing to fight to preserve it.

From California to Connecticut, politicians scrambled to contain the fallout from the Pentagon's blueprint for the first round of base closings in a decade. Critics sought to hold lawmakers accountable for campaign promises they had made to constituents, while lawmakers boarded planes to visit bases and offer reassurances that they planned to keep up the fight.

Political promises tested
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who knocked off Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle in November, had repeatedly assured voters that his sway with the administration would be at least as helpful to preserving Ellsworth Air Force Base as Daschle's seniority. Ellsworth, where 11,000 people live or work, is on a vast stretch of prairie near Rapid City and has 29 B-1B bombers, half the nation's fleet. The Pentagon wants to consolidate the planes at a base in Texas.

When Ellsworth showed up yesterday as one of the biggest bases on the list, Thune took a chartered plane from his home in Sioux Falls and flew to Rapid City to say that he would pursue legislation to slow the process, would seek a regional base-closing hearing in the state and would insist that uniformed troops be allowed to testify. At a news conference carried live on four South Dakota stations, the first question was about last year's campaign.

"Folks can replay the past," Thune said. "We're focused on the future."

But several Republican officials in Washington were privately shocked by the decision and said they thought the administration owed Thune something after he had run twice for the seat — the first time at President Bush's personal request — and then knocked off the Democratic leader. Administration officials said that because Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bush appointees signed off on the list, an element of politics was unavoidable.

Steve Hildebrand, Daschle's campaign manager, said that Thune had "deceived voters during the election" and that Democrats would "lay this directly at his feet" over the next five years.

Thune went on CNN and Fox News to say that the Pentagon had made "a grave error in judgment."

Pitched battle begins
The list, the first step in a process that will continue over many months as it is reviewed by a commission and then by Bush, was e-mailed by the Pentagon at 9:13 a.m. Within minutes, members of Congress were en route to bases and phoning for favors as they mounted high-stakes lobbying campaigns to try to preserve local jobs and perceptions about their clout.

Besides Thune, perhaps the biggest political embarrassment befell Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate majority leader, who had tried to block confirmation of the base-closing commission. Naval Station Pascagoula in Mississippi was marked for extinction.

The pain was spread geographically, with many of the military's assets scheduled to be moved from the Northeast and Midwest to the South. New England was walloped, with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) calling the recommendations — including closure of Naval Shipyard Portsmouth in her state — "a strategic blunder of epic proportions."

Race for damage control
Perhaps no Republican lawmaker faces more jeopardy than Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.), whose heavily Democratic district includes a New London submarine base slated for closure. A perennial top Democratic target, Simmons based part of his reelection campaign last year on the contention that his position on the House Armed Services Committee would helped save the submarine base.

Four days before the election, Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) had visited the submarine base with Simmons and said he would urge the Pentagon to keep it open. Like many lawmakers who had grim news to report yesterday, Simmons emphasized that this is the early stage for the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

"To take submarines out of Groton-New London is like taking cars out of Detroit," Simmons said by telephone. "We're shocked."

The stakes are also immediate for Santorum, the Senate's third-ranking Republican. Seven minutes after the e-mail was sent, he stepped in front of a lectern in Carlisle, Pa., home of the Army War College and was greeted with applause as he broke the news that the storied school had been spared.

Then it was off to Willow Grove, outside Philadelphia, after the Morning Call of Allentown had reported in April that he had said encroaching development had put the base "in the firing line."

"Santorum Enabled Base Closures in PA," the Pennsylvania Democratic Party charged in an e-mail after yesterday's announcement. Santorum said in an interview that he had been making positive comments about another base and had not meant to disparage Willow Grove, which he said he repeatedly called "an outstanding base."

Santorum, gearing up for a bruising reelection race against state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., the likely challenger, paid hours-apart visits to three major installations in the state that had been threatened so that he could, as he said in the interview, "face the folks and let them know that I was going to be there to be helpful to them."

GOP supplies ‘BRAC Packs’
The House Republican Conference began advising members three weeks ago to write newspaper columns and take other steps to explain to constituents what could be coming and sent members a "BRAC Pack" with direct phone lines for key officials in each branch of the military. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said yesterday that reacting vocally and visibly was the most important step members could take. "The first, basic message has to be 'We're going to fight the heck out of this,' " Kingston said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who faces reelection next year, held a preemptive meeting in her office on Tuesday with the base-closure commission's chairman, Anthony H. Principi, who was secretary of veterans affairs for Bush's first term. She told Empire State reporters on a lunchtime conference call yesterday that she had invited him to come to New York and that he had "assured me he would visit New York."