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Senate Bill Proposes Closing Roosevelt Roads - White House Plans New Vieques Meetings

by Elizabeth Becker

December 16, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES CO. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- The Senate will hold hearings next month on a bill to close the $3 billion naval station in Puerto Rico, a move that would clearly hurt the Puerto Rican economy, if the commonwealth refuses to allow live-fire exercises to resume on the island of Vieques.

The governor of Puerto Rico today called the legislation a ''petty political move'' that would cause major economic damage to the commonwealth, his spokesman said. But the bill's sponsor, Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said naval operations in Puerto Rico would not make sense without use of the Vieques range.

And in a sign of the Clinton administration's concern over the diminishing prospects for a settlement, John Podesta, the White House chief of staff, will meet a top official in the administration of Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro J. Rossello, on Thursday to prepare for a meeting next week between Governor Rossello and President Clinton, Puerto Rican officials said. The Clinton administration declined to answer questions about the base closing proposal or the upcoming meetings.

Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview today that it made sense to close the Roosevelt Roads naval station on the main island of Puerto Rico if the commonwealth refused to allow training on the smaller island of Vieques.

''We're clearly of the view that if the range is lost, it is highly likely that we would close Roosevelt Roads,'' Senator Warner said.

That naval station serves the Navy battle groups and marines that train in Vieques and open waters around Puerto Rico. Roosevelt Roads provides $300 million to Puerto Rico 's economy each year and employs 2,500 civilians and 2,400 military personnel.

Earlier this month, President Clinton ordered a halt to live-fire military training on Vieques to help resolve an eight-month dispute between the Navy and Puerto Rico. In April, a Puerto Rican civilian guard was killed in a bombing accident, leading to political protests that have united Puerto Rico as no other issue has.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have been prevented for the first time since 1941 from using the range for exercises they consider essential training for combat readiness.

Governor Rossello rejected Mr. Clinton's compromise offer, which included restricting exercises on Vieques to non-explosive, or inert, ordnances, reducing by half the number of days that exercises would be held and ending all exercises within five years unless the local residents agreed to an extension. Mr. Clinton also offered Vieques a $40 million economic revival package to demonstrate that the Navy understood it must ''repair relations'' with the people of Vieques.

Angel Morey, Puerto Rico 's secretary of state, will meet with Mr. Podesta on Thursday to arrange a meeting as early as next week among the governor, Mr. Clinton, and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, said Alfonso Aguilar, press secretary for the governor.

''Just the fact that the White House is receiving Mr. Morey, and eventually the governor, shows the president is making a great effort to look out for the welfare of the people of Vieques,'' Mr. Aguilar said. ''This is a positive first step showing the president and the White House are still in the dialogue and willing to compromise.''

But, senior administration and military officials said, a settlement has to be reached in the next several weeks to allow the Navy to plan for alternatives if the battle groups can no longer train on Vieques.

Even without the pending legislation in the Senate, the Navy would automatically examine closing Roosevelt Roads station if Vieques was lost, a senior Naval official said.

''The relationship between Roosevelt Roads and the mission of Vieques range is very close,'' the official said. ''If we lose Vieques, it would be cause for a review of the value of keeping Roosevelt Roads.''

This year the Pentagon failed to persuade Congress to approve a new round of base closings at installations around the country that have lost their use in the post-cold-war era but continue to cost billions of dollars to maintain. Now several senators are proposing to close Roosevelt Roads if there are no more exercises at Vieques.

''Put yourself in the position of a senator or representative who closed a military installation,'' Senator Inhofe said. ''Politically, you can't resist closing down Roosevelt Roads. It's a no-brainer.''

Governor Rossello was not surprised that the Senate is threatening to close Roosevelt Roads, Mr. Aguilar said, adding, "the governor has known for some time that this argument would be used against him.''

Puerto Rican officials said that Roosevelt Roads was important even without Vieques and was used in the war against drugs as well as other military training.

Since this summer, the Navy has been searching for alternatives to Vieques for training exercises. But military officials say they have yet to find anything to duplicate the ''unique qualities'' of Vieques.

Earlier this month, the Navy and Marine Corps put together a ''patchwork" of training for the aircraft carrier Eisenhower and its battle group, including a Marine detachment, which leaves for its next assignment to the Mediterranean in February without training at Vieques. Instead they used bases in Florida and North Carolina for pilots to drop bombs and marines to storm the beach, as well as temporary naval artillery training on Cape Wrath in Scotland.

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