By Dave Montgomery, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON - U.S. military leaders and their allies in Congress are warning of disastrous consequences on military bases across the nation if the incoming Democratic-led Congress does not approve a $14 billion military construction bill that died in the previous Republican-controlled session.
The measure, which the military says is vital to repair deteriorating installations and accommodate thousands of military personnel and their families, was one of nine appropriations bills that failed to clear the previous Congress late last year. Only two passed.
Democratic leaders presiding over the 110th Congress that convenes today have indicated that they will rely on an austere emergency spending measure to finance most government operations through the remainder of fiscal 2007, which ends Sept. 30, while they craft appropriations bills for 2008.
Military makes case
But top-ranking military officials, in written pleas to congressional leaders, say the nation's military infrastructure could be imperiled if the so-called MilCon bill isn't resurrected and hurriedly passed.
Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, warned in a joint letter that the Army "will experience unacceptable delays" in constructing new housing and renovating inadequately funded bases. Army officials estimate that $5.9 billion in projects targeted for 45 states, including 8,000 housing units, will go unfunded.
The heads of other services have registered similar pleas.
Military officials say the bill is needed to build new facilities to house thousands of returning service personnel from overseas as well to handle the transfer of facilities mandated by last year's base-closing and realignment process, known as BRAC.
As the new Congress prepares to begin work today, several lawmakers say they will push to either revive the appropriations bill or press for emergency funding to salvage the most urgently needed projects. Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., plans to introduce legislation to finance military construction projects that were mandated by a defense authorization bill but left largely unfunded in the absence of an appropriations bill.
"We have a responsibility to keep our word to our troops and their communities," said Inhofe. "Not executing this funding now will set off a domino effect that will increase the total cost of BRAC, as well as delay its execution."
The nationwide base restructuring is scheduled to be complete by 2011, but some Pentagon officials and lawmakers fear that the dilemma over military construction could derail that timetable.
Projects facing delays
The casualties would include 42 separate projects for barracks that would house 19,000 soldiers, according to the Pentagon. Texas would apparently emerge as the biggest loser with the delay of $751 million in projects. Fort Bliss near El Paso, which is in line to absorb 17,000 soldiers and 10,000 family members under BRAC, faces the delay of $463 million in projects, including construction of administration buildings and family support facilities.
Several armed forces reserve centers mandated by BRAC would also be delayed. Five reserve centers would be delayed in California, along with a $4.5 million project to renovate a field maintenance shop at the Sacramento Army Depot.
Fort Benning in Georgia would sustain a $300 million loss, including barracks and a training brigade complex. Fort Bragg, N.C., faces the delay of a $300 million project to build barracks, a vehicle maintenance shop and a multipurpose range designed to accommodate an assortment of weapons.