Q&A: Domenici talks Cannon, immigration

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici R-N.M. talks about issues concerning eastern New Mexico during an interview Friday at the Clovis News Journal. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was in the region on Thursday and Friday and was present for a briefing at Clovis Community College with Air Force officials. The Air Force visited the area for four days to begin the process of finding a new mission for Cannon Air Force Base.

Domenici has been in the Senate longer than any other New Mexican, and is chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

He is also a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, and the U.S. Senate Committee on Budget.

He sat down with staff from the Clovis News Journal and the Portales News-Tribune to answer questions on Friday morning.

How many sessions have you had with the new secretary of the Air Force and what is his take on Cannon?
I’ve had conversations with the Secretary of Defense about Cannon. One of them was to share with him the words that are in the BRAC, which say “shall seek a new mission.” And he clearly understands them. I’m confident that when you tell a secretary of defense that you shall seek a mission that’s very important. And I think that is what they are doing. … As far as the Secretary of the Air Force, I have only talked to him once … That’s where we are now.

What impressions about Cannon did you get from the viewpoint of the secretary of the Air Force during your one conversation?
None of them (Air Force or Department of Defense officials) are committal, other than to say that this is a great base; they all know that. And everybody along the line is saying they are going to do their best — “We know what BRAC said, we know what your interest is (the say).” I am doing everything I can and I feel very comfortable with what I am doing.

Air Force officials have said they face challenges of antiquated equipment and a shrinking force. What do you envision as the future of the Air Force?
There is a lot of change occurring (in the Air Force). The biggest one has to do with long range and long term anti-terrorism (issues) in the broadest sense. Special op(eration)s kinds of activities are the ones being looked at in terms of the future.

Can you discuss the differences between the Base Realignment and Closure process, which targets installations for closure and realignment, and the new Cannon mission-finding process occurring now?
I am not involved with details (involving the procedures of the Air Force team recently assigned to prepare a report on Cannon’s assets). Nobody would do anything (involving Cannon) until the BRAC date was up. That’s 2 1/2 weeks ago — nobody would talk to anybody until then. So, it’s not three months.

Whatever they were doing, every time you would talk to (Air Force officials) they would say “No dice until that point.” So, it’s not like we’ve been having a bunch of exchanges. There was nothing to exchange. On the other hand, that does not mean they weren’t doing things. I have every reason to believe they were. That they were looking very carefully at some things.

Did Arizona Sen. John McCain, in efforts to protect his interests, have anything to do with Cannon being put on the BRAC list as has been rumored?
All I know is that the Secretary of Defense is … in my opinion, and has always been for me, a very honest, forthright man. On more than one occasion, he has told me there is no politics involved (in BRAC). … But who knows. Humans are humans, and there may have been within that process rubbing of shoulders, comments, whispering. I don’t know about any of that.

When do you think Cannon could have a new mission?
We heard months. I don’t think that means a year. … I think it will be less than (a year). I think they want to (find a mission expeditiously). I think our chances (of finding a mission) are not enhanced by delay. But, you know … I am trying my best to tell you, I am not a military planner, I am not a military expert. … It seems to me things will be more stabilized in a year.

What if the people of Clovis and Portales don’t want a mission the Air Force team recommends for Cannon?
I don’t think the military is going to shove anything down our throats. This is … going to have to be a very joint partnership, as it’s always been.

Will the process of finding a new mission be more open than the BRAC process was?
BRAC is kind of non-transparent by definition. Clearly, this (mission-finding process) is going to be eons more transparent (than BRAC). … Before decisions are made (about Cannon), there will be plenty known, plenty of the results and evaluation results will be forthcoming. That does not mean anybody’s going to sit in a room and … invite Pete Domenici or Gen. (military base planner Hanson) Scott into a decision on their meetings. But neither are they going to bring a big surprise tomorrow and say “Hey, we are doing this.” We will be a part of that.

Two BRAC commissioners recessed from voting on Cannon for personal reasons. The number of votes needed to remove a base from the list, however, remained the same — five. How do you feel about that and is there anything that can be done about it?
We (the congressional delegates) looked into (the recusal issue) ourselves. The conclusion we came up with is that you couldn’t do anything about it. That’s not challengeable. The commission itself was unhappy, too. They looked into it, but everybody’s final decision was that they make their rules, and that’s it.

Brig. Gen. Ron Ladnier, leader of the Air Force team that visited the region last week, volunteered a personal opinion about the future of Cannon at the Clovis Community College briefing, saying there would be a new mission for the base. How optimistic should supporters be?
I don’t know what (his statement) means. … They (the Air Force team) kept telling us (the congressional delegates) they’re a fact-finding group. They’re going to produce a product not a policy. So, what does the opinion of a fact-finder have to do with a policy? I just kind of think it (his opinion) doesn’t have a big impact, but nonetheless it could have an impact on what they produce. … If they have to write a conclusion about a facility, they can’t be saying we recommend this, but they could be saying how they feel.

Can you explain the evolution of the fact-finding Air Force team?
I have no way of knowing.

Is anybody else going to come to the region for Cannon evaluation purposes?
I am not aware of a team like this (planning a visit). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if from time to time people come in here. I don’t think they will be coming in that manner, with a big hearing and participation. But there’s gotta be some specifics that are gonna be addressed by people within the defense department.

What are your predictions for the future of the Ute Water Project?
I think you know that the authorization for that goes to our committee (Committee on Energy and Natural Resources) and I have already agreed that I will introduce the bill; I will be the sponsor, which means it will get through the Senate. Then we will work with the House and it should happen.

But here’s the problem: There is no source of money, there is no pot, there is no water resource revolving fund. … And so, you know, the price (of the project) has been going up, and it’s big. I have never been able to honestly tell the delegation that comes and visits that I know where to get the money. What I have said is that I will do everything I can, and I will. You know that there will have to be a match (of funds for the project). We all (federal, state, and local authorities) have to come up with some money. And the base (of money contributors) for the Ute (Water Project) has been shrinking because people have been dropping off. …

I think it’s best for me to be absolutely forthright. We can put this on the books of the United States government as something that we have authorized to be done. But, I don’t think we are going to quickly be able to say we have appropriated money. We might even have to take steps because most (water projects like this) are done in pieces. It takes a nice chunk of money for planning and designing.

Does eastern New Mexico have any other water options for the future?
I am asking the local people and the experts and they don’t know of any other options. So, we just have to work on this and we have to put all our strength to it and see what we can move. … I will do that. It’s just that I know which pot of money, which appropriation bill, it comes out of. … It does come within the jurisdiction of the committee on energy and water, which I appropriate every year. … I don’t want to leave it on this depressing (note). I’ve got to try to find a way, but I don’t see it right now. Let’s get it in there (Congress, as an authorized project) and get it passed, as a first step. I’ve made that commitment and that can be done.

Where do you stand on immigration issues?
…The big problem of the pressure of people that can’t make a living, and are moving with their feet, is still there. (President Bush) proposed some things and got burned and got off the issues. How did he get burned? He got burned because whenever he talks about worker permits many of his strong supporters think he is ignoring making the border safe. … We (the American government) took the lead within the last year and a half, and put in huge amounts of money that (Bush) didn’t have, which he talked about in his speech — 2,000 new beds, 1,500 new agents, new robotics all aimed at trying to make (the border) less porous.

The president knows that you can’t just button up the border. You have to have a policy with reference to the rest of (the immigration issue). There are 9 to 11 million illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans, Central Americans (in the U.S.) Anybody who runs around and says we are going to throw them all out is just dreaming. They are everywhere. They are not just in Clovis and Albuquerque. They are in Ohio. And they are not just on the farms. … They’re automobile mechanics, and then you have people in Maryland saying they are building all the houses. …

So the president was always trying to put that into the mix, and now he finally in this speech said “OK, we’ve got to (find a work program and tighten border security),” but right now we’ve gotta emphasize putting in the resources to try to control the border. I myself don’t think (Bush) nor we have done enough about that.”

Should immigrants be granted citizenship status?
I am not bashful to tell you some of the things I want to do people are not going to like. But I think I am going to be a realist because I don’t think we oughta tell the American people we are going to round these people (immigrants) up and send them home. We oughta button the border up and set a new immigration policy and we oughta decide what do we give (immigrants) short of citizenship. We shouldn’t give them citizenship (just because they are here). You’ve gotta do something realistic, and at some point send them home. But, when you send them home, I am not saying after three years, maybe two or five years, they’ve got to be put in line some way to start the process through of becoming a citizen, but they aren’t gonna push everybody (else applying for citizenship) out of the way.

America was founded upon its open borders. How do immigrants fit into the American way of life?
Sovereignty is important. … America is sovereign and you cannot just open (America) up with the disparity in economics because the world would come here. … So, we have to have (immigration policies) organized. But people who think that America does not need immigrants during this century and as far as we can see — and I mean need in the sense of not menial jobs, such as farming — but we will need workers because our growth patterns and demographics indicate either we are going to need a lot of workers or we will be a dormant, dead economy. … It’s sort of a circle, you gotta have both, you’ve gotta have growth, you’ve gotta have them, and if you have them you can have growth. But how you do that in an atmosphere like we’ve got, that’s as tough as an issue as you can get. … The people have now put these issue high enough where we can’t ignore it any longer.

Who will be in the race for president in 2008?
I think everybody knows on the Democratic side that it is being said that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner. I understand from our governor (Bill Richardson) that he is going to run even though I think he is sort of saying maybe. I think what that means is he is going to feel his way. There will be a number of Democrats. But I think in the end Hillary Clinton will be the front-runner.

On our (Republican) side, it’s a very interesting one because the front-runners are not conservative on the issues of pro-life, same-sex marriage. But probably the two front-runners are McCain and (former New York Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani. At this particular time, probably Giuliani, even though he hasn’t been in the limelight, is ahead. … So I think it is very open on the Republican side.

There are a couple of governor sleepers on both sides. So, let’s go to the Democrats, first. The governor of the state of Virginia… is gaining a lot of momentum… The governor of Arkansas is another Republican sleeper.

What do you think of the latest Supreme Court nominee?
All this late evaluation and news and promotion about his early positions when he was writing letters and saying what the strategy might be on abortion,… (that) will make life tough for him, but I don’t think any of them so far are going to be deadly. In my opinion, there will not be a filibuster. I would be surprised if he didn’t get more than 55 votes, maybe even 60. And that’s because the American people respect qualified people that are put up for these kind of positions. … I think he’s a terrific man from what I can tell.

What does the future hold for Pete Domenici?
If I feel like I have been strong and enjoyed my work, then there is no reason I shouldn’t run (for Senate) again. But I am not committed either way. I do feel I must finish up my work on nuclear power — there needs to be a strong American policy on how to get rid of (nuclear) waste.

Do you support the Iraq War and do you have a vision on how to end it?
First of all, I would speak to the issue of political antagonism (generated by) the opposition party (Democrats). Predominately the Democratic party is fighting the president, and in particular is carping on whether he told the truth or not (about weapons of mass destruction and reasons that brought us into the war). … The American people have caught onto that. They don’t think that is constructive, they understand that it is political maneuvering. …

However, I am rather pleased with what’s happened in the last month. The Democrats … have had to try to articulate their position on the war. And in all actuality, they come closer to the president rather than further (in their views and vision for the war’s end): They think we need to train the Iraqi police force, they think Iraqi elections are important.

My take (on the war) is that it is as tough a job as we’ve ever had. I don’t know that the word victory is right, but there is a good chance that we will succeed. … I believe we will start withdrawing (our troops), in an order of the way, within the next year. A significant withdrawal will be possible then because the Iraqi army will get better. … In a nutshell, we can succeed. We can’t just act as if this is not important to the future of America and the Middle East. Terrorism will be made stronger if America fails.

— Compiled by CNJ staff writer Marlena Hartz