WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved the nomination of Leon Panetta to be the next Pentagon chief, handing him a crowded agenda of overseeing the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, tamping down congressional unrest over the Libyan conflict and cutting the budget.
Panetta will replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring June 30 after 41/2 years through the administrations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama.
Panetta, the CIA director during the successful operation to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, received strong bipartisan praise as well as a 100-0 vote.
“Just a home-run choice. The president made a very wise decision,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
In a statement, Panetta thanked the Senate for its strong vote of confidence and promised to ensure that the U.S. maintains the strongest military in the world.
Panetta, 72, a former congressman, chairman of the House Budget Committee, one-time director of the Office of Management and Budget and Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, faces several assignments, starting with Obama’s initial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer.
American troops also are slated to leave Iraq by year’s end. And Gates has indicated that he’s likely to certify that gays can serve openly in the military, implementing the new policy.
Obama has called for some $400 billion in cuts over the next 12 years amid intense budget pressures, a certain test of Panetta’s skills.
“He is the most qualified individual to tackle the huge budgetary issues,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.