WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to confirm outgoing Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta as the new secretary of defense, replacing the retiring Robert Gates.
Panetta, who has held a variety of senior posts in Washington dating back decades, was nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Pentagon. Panetta is expected to start his new job on July 1.
The rare 100-0 vote followed a debate that saw praise for Panetta and anxiety about the challenges he will face to push defense budgets lower and oversee the start of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The troop pullout is due to begin next month and Obama is expected to present a blueprint for it in a prime-time speech to Americans on Wednesday.
"The next secretary of defense will have to struggle with the competing demands on our forces while Washington struggles with an extremely challenging fiscal environment," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said.
He said Panetta's lengthy experience made him the right man for the job. As CIA director since February 2009, Panetta had been "intimately" involved in the most pressing national security issues, Levin said -- personally overseeing the manhunt that ended in last month's covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.
Panetta, a long-standing Democrat, also had been budget director for former President Bill Clinton and helped shape decisions that led to budget surpluses of the late 1990s, Levin said.
Panetta told Congress this month that he would ensure fiscal discipline in the U.S. military, saying the days of "unlimited" defense budgets were over.
During his confirmation hearing, Panetta broadly signaled his alignment with Gates, saying they tended to "walk hand in hand" on many issues. Gates has warned against hasty drawdowns in Afghanistan.
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