LaHood battles to save Illinois Guard unit

Peoria congressman introduces legislation to block base closings

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Methodist Medical Center


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

By Otto Kreisher
of Copley News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Launching an uphill fight to save an Air National Guard unit in his district, Rep. Ray LaHood introduced legislation Tuesday to block implementation of the base closure and realignment recommendations, which were approved by an independent commission and by President Bush.

To stop the extensive list of military installation reductions from proceeding, both chambers of Congress would have to approve a resolution of disapproval. Similar efforts in the four previous BRAC rounds failed by overwhelming margins, and the same result is considered likely this year.

But LaHood, R-Peoria, who has opposed this base closure round from the start, said he is hopeful that a majority of lawmakers will join him in voting against the BRAC recommendations.

"As I have said before, I believe it is wrong that we are closing and realigning bases while we are at war," he said in a statement. "The especially egregious way in which Air National Guard units were treated under this round of BRAC only serves to underscore the problems with this system."

LaHood singled out the recommendation to transfer the 15 F-16s of the Illinois Air National Guard' 183rd Fighter Wing from the Abraham Lincoln Capitol Airport in Springfield to Indiana as an example of the problem.

LaHood hopes to persuade his congressional colleagues to help him save the 183rd and save jobs at the Rock Island Arsenal and the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command near Chicago - all of which are slated for some type of realignment or reduction under the commission's report. Overall, the state could lose about 2,700 jobs due to the base closings.

"The arsenal, the 183rd, the Great Lakes, all of these military groups have provided great capabilities when called upon. I don't think we reward them by saying we are going to realign or eliminate you, particularly in a time of war. I hope we can reward them by saying you can operate the way you have," he said. "This is not the time to be realigning."

In the initial recommendations sent to the BRAC commission, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had proposed to remove the aircraft from 29 Air Guard units across the nation, following the Air Force's request to consolidate its shrinking supply of planes. The commission rejected a substantial number of those proposals, but approved the elimination of the 183rd.

"That is just plain wrong," LaHood said. "We ask our National Guardsmen to do amazing things, from fighting for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, to helping rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina, and now the government wants to move their job to another state or even eliminate them altogether. That is wrong, wrong, wrong!"

LaHood's proposed resolution of disapproval appeared to be the first attempt by any lawmaker to stop the commission's recommendations, which were approved by Bush and sent to Congress on Friday.

Congress has 45 legislative days from then to pass a joint resolution of disapproval or the recommendations become law.

The BRAC law provides for expedited treatment of the resolutions. They go directly to the armed services committees in each chamber, which must report them to the floor within 20 days with either a positive or negative recommendation. Three days later, any member can call up the resolution for a vote.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and the senior Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, have said they will not oppose the closure recommendations.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and the top Democrat, Ike Skelton of Missouri, have not taken a position, but are considered unlikely to oppose the BRAC action.

Christopher Hellman, a BRAC specialist at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said he considers the prospects of Congress blocking the recommendations "slim to none."

Hellman noted that the commission reduced the likely opposition to its report by rejecting or modifying many of Rumsfeld's proposals.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has attempted to stop the loss of the 183rd's fighters and 163 military and civilian personnel through legal action, arguing that Guard units cannot be closed or moved without the consent of the affected governor. But his lawsuit was rejected by a federal circuit court, as were the similar claims from other states.

Appeals of those initial rejections are expected. But the Justice Department and private legal authorities told the commission that the BRAC law supercedes the other statutes the governors are citing.

Journal Star reporter Andy Kravetz contributed to this story.