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Thune Discusses Decision to Spare Ellsworth

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

South Dakota residents are celebrating today after an independent panel voted to keep open a key military base. Ellsworth Air Force Base is home to half the nation's B-1 bombers and it's the second largest employer in South Dakota. The panel's decision is a major victory for the state's political leaders, including Republican Senator John Thune. He joins me now on the line.

Good morning.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This decision must be quite a relief for you.

Sen. THUNE: We--everybody in South Dakota was breathing a sigh of relief. For those of us that were in the room were especially just breathing a sigh of relief because it's been a very stressful three days or so since they started these deliberations. We've been waiting for our base to come up on their agenda and today it did. They had a very thoughtful discussion about it. In the end we got a very strong vote in favor of taking the base off the closure list, so we're thrilled with that outcome. And it was the result of a lot of good hard work and teamwork--the good people of South Dakota who stepped up on this, and I think, frankly, the merits of Ellsworth Air Force Base.

MONTAGNE: Well, what arguments, in fact, did seem to persuade the commission to reject the Pentagon's recommendation that Ellsworth be closed?

Sen. THUNE: Well, I think, that the commission took a very--what I appreciate--was independent, thoughtful, open-minded approach about this. Not just coming in and saying we're going to rubber stamp the Pentagon's recommendations, but listened to many of the arguments that were made. And, I think, ultimately there were a couple of issues that were pretty compelling; one was cost. They were looking at savings and it became clear that many of the savings that had been attributed to closure of Ellsworth Air Force Base were, in fact, dramatically overstated. And this morning in their presentation they even made it clear that it might cost money to consolidate to a single base rather than to continue to keep the two bases open. So I think that was a key argument and that was something that we really sharpened our pencils on in the last few weeks and tried to get that information in front of this commission, and I think they were listening to those arguments.

MONTAGNE: And then another argument you made--I just wonder kind of yes or no--if you think it persuaded them, the idea was not to put all the B-1 bombers in one place, which was going to be Dyess Air Force Base down in Texas.

Sen. THUNE: That was part of our strategy from the beginning. We made a decision that--making the argument against consolidation was perhaps our strongest argument, that, in fact, it presented an inherent security risk to have all of your assets in one place. And then we got some pretty compelling testimony from a retired four-star general, Mike Lowe, who also spoke about how that also creates operational inefficiencies. So, I think, the consolidation argument and the notion of putting your eggs in one basket really was somewhat persuasive with a number of these commissioners, as well.

MONTAGNE: Senator Thune, in last year's campaign--part of your appeal to voters was that you, as a Republican, would have the ear of the White House when it came to keeping Ellsworth off the closure list and then the base ended up on the Pentagon's list to be closed. In the end, what part did politics play in now keeping Ellsworth open?

Sen. THUNE: Well, the nice thing about this decision today, and this victory for South Dakota and for the country, is that it wasn't about politics. This was a decision that was based upon the merits of--and the military value of Ellsworth Air Force Base and its importance to our national security. And, so, at the end of the day, yes, there was a lot of discussion about how politics might play into this. But, clearly, we, as a delegation--Senator Johnson; myself; Congresswoman Herseth; our governor, Mike Rounds--put politics aside, worked very closely together over the past three months, and made, what I think, were very compelling arguments in front of this commission, and, ultimately, persuaded enough of them that this was a bad decision by the Pentagon.

MONTAGNE: Well, do you think--just for you, personally, does it help make your political future more bright?

Sen. THUNE: Well, you know, I've said all along, Renee, that this isn't about me, it's about--this has enormous consequence for South Dakota. I am happy that we got the outcome that we did. I think the politics always sort of takes care of itself but this really wasn't about that. This was about, I think, again, doing not only what is in the best interest of the people of South Dakota, but the people of the country. And I think what this commission accepted today, that South Dakota needs Ellsworth Air Force Base, obviously, but so does America.

MONTAGNE: Senator Thune, thanks very much.

Sen. THUNE: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Senator John Thune of South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.