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Cheney Defends Rebuilding of Florida Air Force Base

By Melissa Healy
Los Angeles Times


Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney on Wednesday conceded that the proposed rebuilding of Homestead Air Force Base in hurricane-struck southern Florida is not based on strictly military grounds.

But he fired back at critics who charged that President Bush's decision is the result of election-year politics.

Cheney, who regularly chides lawmakers for using the Pentagon's budget to fund local "jobs programs," said Wednesday that Homestead presents "a unique circumstance" in which defense funds should be used to reassure Floridians of the federal government's commitment to help rebuild their area.

"These people badly need to have their communities restored and re-established and, in this particular case, having Homestead Air Force Base there has been sort of the anchor in that part of the state," Cheney said.

"I think his (Bush's) decisions ought to be evaluated on their merits and without always having this charge that somehow this is politically involved. You can't have it both ways. You can't criticize him for doing nothing and then criticize him when he does something."

But in what may foreshadow a political fight over the plan, some lawmakers are already challenging the administration's arguments. Rep. Thomas H. Andrews, D-Maine, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, says that he will call for a review of the president's decision. Under an earlier round of base closures, Andrews' state is to lose Loring Air Force Base and, like many lawmakers, Andrews has been stung by the politically painful process.

"We've just been through the base-closure process designed to take politics out of the decision-making. Now, nine weeks before the election, the president goes down there to Florida and makes a mockery of the process," said Andrews.

"The decision of what to do with a military base should be based on the defense needs of the country and the best value to the taxpayers. Military bases should not be jobs programs or disaster-relief programs."

Other lawmakers, however, remained open to the proposal. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., on Wednesday toured southern Florida, including the destroyed air base, with Gov. Lawton Chiles and declined to say how he would stand on the proposed rebuilding.

Pentagon officials said that some of the rebuilding of the base could begin using existing military construction funds but that Congress would be asked to approve additional funds to complete the base. Military officials have said that such an effort would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Pentagon officials have said that the base, which houses units of F-4 and F-16 fighter jets, is an important staging area for the surveillance of both legitimate trade and illegal narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. Its position near the Florida coast also makes it a valuable training area for low-level flying.

Annual paychecks issued at the installation bring $152 million to the area, making it a major economic force there. The president's announcement comes as Pentagon officials contemplate the closure of dozens of U.S. bases later this year in an effort to save money. In the round of base closures that ended in 1990, Homestead was considered on a short list of prospective closures, but in the end was kept open.

"We're ecstatic about it but surprised and taken aback," Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo said of the president's decision to rebuild Homestead.