New Hampshire's two senators moved quickly Tuesday to protest any move by the Pentagon to seek military base closures in 2017 without congressional approval.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., pressed a senior Defense Department official at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he will look at "every tool at our disposal" to pursue new base closures, even if Congress refuses to endorse them.
"If Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure," Hagel said.
Ayotte asked Robert Work, President Obama's nominee for deputy defense secretary, what authority Hagel was referring to that would be independent of Congress.
"I would like you to give us a commitment that the department will not pursue BRAC (Base Realignment And Closure) without approval of Congress," Ayotte declared.
Work answered, "Secretary Hagel believes there are some authorities the department could use, but I don't know what those authorities are, and I commit to you that if confirmed, I will work with both the Department to get back to you. And of course we would not start a BRAC unless we were given explicit approval in the law."
Ayotte, the first-term senator from Nashua, said she didn't find that response satisfactory.
"I take that as a lack of commitment and so that troubles me, because I believe that Congress should be in the position to approve BRAC and that there should not be a run-around done," Ayotte said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., took note of Hagel's comment and vowed to fight any attempt to reignite talk of closing the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
"Another BRAC round would have serious consequences for our shipyard, our workers, and our economy in New Hampshire," Shaheen said Tuesday in a statement. "I will continue to use my position as chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness to fight any efforts to advance another round."
Ayotte is the ranking Republican member of the readiness working group that has control over any base closure legislation.
Last July, Shaheen and Ayotte worked together to block any base closure from becoming part of the 2013 defense spending bill even though the Pentagon had requested it.
Shaheen argued taking up base closures would be devastating after the Pentagon had to carry out across-the-board sequestration cuts required by a 2011 deficit reduction law.
"We have a responsibility to make sure the men and women who serve our nation in uniform are fully prepared and ready to accomplish their missions," Shaheen said at the time. "Sequestration is not the right way to protect our national security or our servicemen and women, and it has affected our military's readiness to meet today's challenges and threats."
Ayotte was pleased that defense bill had included that new project for the Kittery, Maine shipyard's structural workshops as it continues the overhaul of the Los Angeles class of Navy submarines.
"I am pleased that this legislation supports the administration's request for an important military construction project at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard that will save money and enable the skilled workers there to continue to provide world class maintenance for our nation's attack submarine fleet," Ayotte said.
About 4,600 civilians and 96 military personnel work at the shipyard on the Maine-New Hampshire border, one of four remaining Navy shipyards.
The Seacoast Shipyard Association, in its most recent economic impact study, said that in 2010 Portsmouth's civilian payroll totaled more than $395 million. The yard also bought nearly $45 million worth of supplies and services, with more $6.3 million of that spent in Maine, the study showed.
In 2005, the Pentagon put the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the closure list prompting an aggressive, successful campaign by both political parties in New Hampshire and Maine to save it led by then-Gov. John Lynch.
The Pentagon has asked several times for another round of base closures but Congress hasn't approved one.
Ayotte said Tuesday the Congress is wary of any further base closures after the Pentagon underestimated what they would cost.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in 2012 that BRAC implementation costs grew to about $35 billion -- exceeding the initial 2005 estimate by 67 percent.
Staff for the state's two members of the U.S. House, Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.