WASHINGTON - Overruling the Pentagon on two of its biggest requests, a commission reviewing base closings voted to keep open a shipyard and a submarine base in New England that military planners wanted to shut down.
The panel also spared three other major facilities, in Texas, California and Louisiana, against the Pentagon's wishes.
But it was New England that got arguably the biggest victories of the day: the commission voted to save two of the Navy's oldest facilities - the Portsmouth shipyard at Kittery, Maine, and Submarine Base New London in Connecticut. Together, the bases are considered economic engines of their region and elected officials from Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut lobbied intently for months to save them.
"Yahoo!" said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. "Submarine base New London lives, and I think that it will live forever."
The commission did, however, decide to close Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine, rather than drastically reduce forces there as the Pentagon wanted. Commissioners argued that savings could be realized more quickly if it was shut down altogether.
Over the past four months, the nine-member panel has expressed worries that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's proposal would leave the Northeast unprotected.
"If we close New London down, we will never get it back," the commission's chairman, Anthony Principi, said Wednesday. "I think it would be a tragic mistake, a tragic loss for this nation."
But the decisions to spare both the submarine base and the shipyard were somewhat surprising. Lobbyists and some lawmakers had privately speculated that the panel would save one base but scrap the other.
In the end, the panel sided with community groups and lawmakers from the Northeast. Analysts have said closing both the shipyard and the submarine base would devastate the economy along the coast from Maine to Rhode Island. Loss of the submarine base would have cost about 8,000 jobs while the shipyard would have cost 4,000 jobs, plus many more at businesses that depend on the bases.
"This is a sweet victory," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who was among the Congress members, former President Carter and a dozen admirals who urged the commission to save the Connecticut base.
In other reversals, the commission kept open, rather than closed Naval Support Activity Corona in California, the Red River Army Depot in Texas and Naval Support Activity in New Orleans.
Lobbying efforts to save other major bases failed. The panel sided with the Pentagon in shutting down five large Army bases and four big Navy installations.
The panel also signed off on closing hundreds of Navy Reserve and Army Reserve and National Guard facilities in dozens of states.
Wednesday began a three-day series of votes planned before the commission sends its final report next month to President Bush, who could make his own changes. Congress also will get the chance to reject the plan after Bush considers it. Lawmakers haven't done that in previous rounds.
Before voting started, Principi said the task was especially difficult because Rumsfeld's proposal included more than double the recommendations in the four previous rounds of base closings combined.
Principi said the commission recognizes that closing bases is necessary to save money and transform the military to meet new challenges.
"At the same time, we know that the decisions we reach will have a profound impact on the communities hosting our military installations, and more importantly, on the people who bring those communities to life," he said.
To reject a recommendation, the commission had to find that the Pentagon substantially deviated from criteria that focuses mainly on the military value of each facility.
Previous commissions - in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 - altered about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed as it sought to get rid of bases considered no longer needed. But analysts say the post-Sept. 11 threat of terrorism makes this time different.
"It's not about just trying to get rid of excess capacity. It's actually about trying to reorganize the forces for future challenges," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.
On Tuesday, Rumsfeld was optimistic his plan would remain largely intact, predicting the commission would endorse "the overwhelming majority" of his recommendations.
The Pentagon proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the armed forces to face current threats.
Since the Pentagon announced its proposal in May, commissioners reviewing the plan have voiced serious concerns about several parts of it, including the Pentagon's estimate of how much money will be saved.
Among the contentious issues remaining to be decided is the Air Force's proposal to strip aircraft from about two dozen Air National Guard facilities.
The Air Force's attempt to close Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, home to freshman Republican Sen. John Thune, has stirred the most political consternation. Thune argued during the 2004 campaign that he - not Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle - would be in a better position to save the facility.
The panel must send its final proposal to Bush by Sept. 8. The president can accept the report or order the commission to make changes.