District leaders face a "heavy burden" in overturning a Pentagon plan to relocate Walter Reed Army Medical Center but must fight that battle before considering other uses for the prime 113-acre site in Northwest Washington, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said yesterday.
The District would lose 6,000 jobs under the Pentagon's base closings proposal -- one of the country's hardest-hit cities. A nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission is reviewing the proposal, unveiled last month by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, before making recommendations Sept. 8 to President Bush.
District and Northern Virginia lawmakers are mobilizing in opposition to the proposed job cuts in their jurisdictions but also are cautioning communities against expectations that they will stop the changes. Norton announced that the base closures panel will have a public hearing in the District on July 7, the same day that Virginia lawmakers expect the commission to take comments on plans to move more than 20,000 defense workers from leased office space in Alexandria and Arlington.
Members of Congress have focused on the high cost of the Pentagon proposals and have challenged Defense Department assumptions of real military value in consolidating military medical operations, abandoning leased space and dispersing workers from the capital.
"The indictment, the presumption, obviously, is in favor of the Pentagon" on the recommendation to close Walter Reed, Norton said during a media briefing after a visit with commission members. "But this fight has only begun, and the worst thing we could do is begin thinking what other uses we could be making of the facility."
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said that he "held out hope" of keeping military jobs in the leased space in Northern Virginia but that he has not seen signs of flexibility from the Pentagon. "There's a real question as to the necessity of moving people around when it doesn't contribute to mission effectiveness or cost savings, especially when the money is going to have to come from military compensation and benefits," he said.
A member of the commission and some of its senior staff met yesterday with District residents at Norton's request after touring Walter Reed and Bolling Air Force Base, also in Washington, as part of tightly scheduled fact-finding missions at affected bases across the country.
Chairman Anthony J. Principi was expected to lead the visit but was ill, a spokeswoman said. Retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd W. Newton, a commission member, took his place. He emphasized that the panel would not be a "rubber stamp."
Asked what struck him most at Walter Reed, Newton said, "There were a host of compelling things, especially the high quality of research." He summarized the choice facing the commission, saying, "Can you deliver that better care and better medical research for the men and women in uniform with the recommendations the Department of Defense made, or is there another option?"
To replace the D.C. complex, the Pentagon has proposed a $200 million expansion of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, to be renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a $500 million, 165-bed community hospital at Fort Belvoir in southeast Fairfax County. It said those changes would unify health services across the military branches.
Norton said that proposal might cost more than it saves, and noted that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal authorities opposed consolidating operations.
"I don't buy at all that consolidation automatically brings military value," said Norton, accompanied by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Faith Wheeler and Douglas Payton, who represent about 4,000 residents near Walter Reed.
"Certainly, we believe this facility right here has military value equal to the value it would have in a consolidated Bethesda hospital," Norton said. "I want to make sure we are using criteria that are permanent considerations and permanently important."
At the briefing, D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said residents fear the "great unknown. They are very supportive of Walter Reed, but they're also very scared about what could come here" if the Army leaves and about the degree of input they would have. Fenty and Norton said residents oppose a "K Street-style office complex," noting that the federal government is hungry for office space.