Thursday, May 26, 2005

Threat to Base Sends Senator on Maneuvers

NY Times
Threat to Base Sends Senator on Maneuvers


WASHINGTON, May 25 - Senator John Thune has long been a darling of the
White House, handpicked by President Bush as a rising Republican star.
But just months after winning election by telling voters that his ties
to Mr. Bush would help save their military base, Mr. Thune is facing a
new reality.

At home in South Dakota, he is feeling the heat from his constituents,
who are furious over the Pentagon's plans to close Ellsworth Air Force
Base, the state's second-largest employer. But in the Senate there are
only so many options available to a freshman - even if that freshman is
Mr. Thune, who became a Republican celebrity by unseating the
Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, last November.

One of those options is sending subtle messages to the White House that
the base-closing recommendations are more important than party loyalty,
which is exactly what Mr. Thune is doing.

"I've said all along that I'm going to play whatever cards I have to
get the best possible outcome I can for my base," Mr. Thune said on
Wednesday. In an interview with a South Dakota newspaper, The Rapid
City Journal, he put it more succinctly: "What goes around, comes

Right now, Mr. Thune's cards include hedging on a matter of utmost
importance to Mr. Bush, the vote on the nomination of John R. Bolton as
ambassador to the United Nations, which could come as early as
Thursday. He has also not taken a public position on the Central
American Free Trade Agreement, which Congress has yet to vote on, and
on Wednesday he implied that he might waver on Mr. Bush's judicial
candidates, although he did vote to confirm Justice Priscilla R. Owen
to the appellate bench.

"I'm undecided on Bolton," Mr. Thune said, "and I guess that's where I
would leave it."

His reasons? "My reasons are my reasons," he said.

But if Mr. Thune was being cagey, his point was obvious, coming as it
did in the context of a lengthy interview about the Ellsworth base and
how he is trying to save it. And at least one Republican aide said
Wednesday that Mr. Thune had told a fellow senator he was contemplating
voting against Mr. Bolton to send a message to the White House about
the base.

It is not as if he believes that Mr. Bush picked the wrong man for the
job. Though he has never said outright that he would vote for Mr.
Bolton, Mr. Thune has made supportive comments. Last month, on the
MSNBC program "Hardball," he said of Mr. Bolton: "He is a guy who
shakes things up. And I think the U.N. needs that."

Just what President Bush can do for Mr. Thune is unclear. As Mr. Thune
said, "Their general posture has been, throughout this entire process,
that these are military decisions based on military value." But people
"in the hinterlands," he said, do not really believe that.

"There are a lot of folks out there," he said, "who, I think, perceive
this process to be like most processes in Washington, to have a
political component to it."

Mr. Thune's dilemma underscores the excruciating political reality that
senators have faced during the base closing process. On Wednesday, he
and Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican of Maine who is fighting
three proposed base closings in her state, introduced legislation that
would force the Pentagon to release the data behind the recommended
closings, which the Base Realignment and Closure Commission has said it
intends to do.

On Thursday, Mr. Thune and several Senate Democrats, including Joseph
I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Jon Corzine of New Jersey, will hold a
news conference on another bill, introduced last week, to delay the
base closings, though such bills have had little effect in the past.
And he plans to introduce a third bill, this one to allow uniformed
officers to testify at hearings on base closings.

Back in South Dakota, Mr. Thune's Democratic foes are busy saying "I
told you so," and last year's campaign has come alive again in the

During the race, Mr. Daschle argued that, as minority leader of the
Senate, he would have a seat on the base closing commission and could
help spare Ellsworth, as he did 10 years ago when Bill Clinton was
president. Mr. Thune countered that as a Republican, he would have the
president's ear.

"John Thune said he had the ear of the president," Steve Hildebrand,
Mr. Daschle's campaign manager, said Wednesday. "People are saying
that, obviously, it was a deaf ear."

Mr. Thune also played up his Republican ties when he campaigned with
Senator Bill Frist, the Republican leader. On a blustery day last May,
the two men stood in a barren parking lot outside the Ellsworth base,
against the backdrop of some retired jets. Dr. Frist told reporters
that he could see a broader mission for Ellsworth and would work to
protect the base from closing.

"As majority leader, I have come here to South Dakota to discuss this
with John Thune," Dr. Frist said, adding, "I will share it in my
discussions with the president of the United States."

Mr. Daschle has been diplomatic about the Ellsworth closing, saying
only that he would work if he could to reverse it. But on the day the
decision was announced, Mr. Hildebrand, still stinging, sent reporters
an e-mail message. Under the title "what power in Washington really
means," he wrote that Tennessee, the home state of Dr. Frist, would
gain 1,088 jobs under the recommendations, while Nevada, the home state
of the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, would gain 1,059 jobs.

But Mr. Hildebrand concluded, "South Dakota, home of presidential
ear-whisperer John Thune, loses 3,797 jobs and has a major closure in
Ellsworth Air Force Base."

On Wednesday, Mr. Thune refused to detail what kind of whispering he
was doing now with the White House.

"Let's just say there are ongoing discussions," he said. "I'm not going
to characterize anything that is going on. The judges, the Bolton
nomination, these are serious issues. I'm very serious about doing the
right thing. The base situation in my state is also a serious matter
for me, and I'm going to make sure I'm doing the right thing there."