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Posted at 05:10 PM ET, 06/21/2011

Senate unanimously confirms Leon Panetta to serve as defense secretary

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously confirmed Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta to serve as the next Secretary of Defense.

Panetta, who was tapped by Obama in April to succeed Robert Gates as head of the Pentagon, is expected to assume his new post early next month. Gates had earlier announced that he planned to step down this year after serving as defense secretary for 4 ½ years.

The Senate’s 100-to-0 confirmation of Panetta comes amid other sweeping changes to Obama’s national security team. On Thursday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, whom Obama has named as his choice to succeed Panetta at the CIA, faces a confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. The same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to vote on the nomination of Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to succeed Karl Eikenberry as ambassador to Afghanistan.

The confirmation of Panetta also comes on the eve of President Obama’s expected announcement that the U.S. will begin its drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan next month.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, senators of both parties spoke out in support of Panetta as they did during his confirmation hearing in early June, one month after the mission that successfully killed Osama bin Laden. Several members referred to that mission in their remarks praising Panetta Tuesday.

“I believe when history looks back ... one of the most important roles played in this effort to prepare the way for those courageous SEALS was the steady leadership of Leon Panetta at the head of the CIA,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said.

“President Obama turned to Director Panetta to personally oversee the manhunt for Osama bin Laden and the awe-inspiring operation that brought an end to al-Qaeda’s murderous leader and provided a measure of relief to the families and friends who have suffered since September 11th, 2001,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin added later.

“The raid on the bin Laden compound epitomizes the way in which the CIA and the Defense Department are finally working together to support each other in counterterrorism operations and Director Panetta deserves credit for this close coordination.”

Several senators also praised Panetta’s tenure as head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton, noting that the Defense Department will be subject to many of the same budget battles facing the rest of the federal government at a time of record national debt.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also spoke out in support of Panetta’s nomination, as did Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). As Graham was speaking, one of the Senate’s most outspoken Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), interrupted to get in a word of praise of his own for Panetta.

“That’s about as bipartisan as you’re going to get,” Graham said, laughing, as Schumer finished his remarks.

By  |  05:10 PM ET, 06/21/2011

 
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