Just before Congress returned from a two-week recess, President Bush on Friday night used his recess-appointment power to thwart an effort by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to stall the work of a military base-closing commission.
When Congress is out of session, a president can use that power to sidestep the need for Senate confirmation by appointing officials who can perform their duties until the end of that Congress. The White House made the announcement at 7:27 p.m. Friday, ahead of the Senate's return at midday Monday.
Senate officials said Lott, who has had bitter relations with the White House since being unseated as majority leader in 2002, was using a procedure known as a "hold" to prevent the Senate from voting on the nomination of Anthony J. Principi, Bush's designee as chairman of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, also known as BRAC.
The process is aimed at taking some of the political heat out of base-closing decisions. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is due to make his recommendations for closings and consolidations by May 16. Then the commission will evaluate them and submit a final package for up-or-down approval by Bush and then Congress.
Lott has said he objected to having decisions about base closings made by what he called an "exclusive, closed and unelected commission" instead of letting it remain the province of Congress. As a senior lawmaker, he said he would be in a better position to protect shipyards at Pascagoula and elsewhere along Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
Lott wrote Jan. 30 in his weekly column, published on his Web site, that he would rather see bases close in "an increasingly unsupportive Western Europe" than "in patriotic, taxpaying towns in Mississippi."
"I'm more worried about the plight of folks in Heidelberg, Mississippi, than Heidelberg, Germany," Lott wrote. "Base closure is not really an initiative for high-rent lobbyists and fleeting commissions to perform. Congress and the people we represent should participate in the debate and carry out the hard work of base closure."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) issued a statement of support for Bush's action, saying this base-closing round is important to national security and that the time to act is very short. "The existing BRAC law sets a very tight schedule, with specific dates, within which the commission must hire a staff, travel to numerous military bases, consult with community leaders, conduct a thorough analysis, and prepare its detailed report," Warner said.
Principi was secretary of veterans affairs in Bush's first administration. Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical giant, announced last month that Principi was becoming vice president of government relations in its Washington office.
The White House announced the recess appointment of Principi and eight other commission members without explanation. White House spokesman Ken Lisaius cited the panel's "looming deadlines" and noted that Principi had been approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The president believes there's important work for the nation to be done by BRAC," Lisaius said. "This is a step to be sure that work is done in a timely fashion."
Lott aides did not return messages yesterday. Senate aides said that Lott put the hold on after the committee's voice vote on March 17, and that he was expected to do the same with other commission nominees.
The other members of the commission named by Bush on Friday were former representative James H. Bilbray (D-Nev.); Philip E. Coyle, an assistant defense secretary under President Bill Clinton; retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr.; former representative James V. Hansen (R-Utah); retired Army Gen. James T. Hill; retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd Warren Newton; Samuel K. Skinner, who was White House chief of staff and transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush; and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Sue Ellen Turner.