Leon Panetta is expected to be swiftly confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the next secretary of defense. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Panetta’s visit to Capitol Hill comes as Obama and his national security team are assessing the future of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and awaiting a decision by Iraqi leaders regarding whether they want U.S. troops to stay in the country beyond 2011. But it also comes as lawmakers are targeting the Pentagon budget for cuts, pondering deeper contract cuts and debating whether to curtail generous military health-care benefits for some veterans.

Close, loyal Federal Eye readers will recall a series of posts we published in early 2009 posing potential lines of inquiry for Obama’s other Cabinet nominees during their Senate confirmation hearings. The questions come from an extensive Government Accountability Office report prepared at the request of Congress during the Bush-Obama presidential transition.

Today we do the same for Panetta, and add suggested questions sent to us by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Foreign Policy Initiative. (You should share the questions YOU would want to ask in the comments section below.)

Remember — though most of the hard-hitting, headline-inducing exchanges with Panetta will come at the start of the hearing, later rounds could glean his thoughts on the details of leading the Pentagon, the largest most complex element of the executive branch.

Here are some of the suggested questions from GAO:

• To what extent do you have experience in managing complex organizations with large budgets? ... Given the significant challenges facing the department to address current, emerging, and future threats ... what management actions and timelines would you establish to identify defense plans and budgets that are linked to a strategic, risk-based framework?

• The military services face significant challenges in equipping, training, and preparing forces for the ongoing large-scale operations as well as maintaining readiness to meet other operational requirements. How does your background and experience enable you to address these pervasive problems?

• The department has become increasingly reliant on contractors to support deployed forces. What experience do you have in managing large-scale contracting and what actions do you believe the department should take to improve its management and oversight of contractors?

• What steps would you take to ensure that service members returning from military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are appropriately screened, diagnosed, and treated for mental health and other conditions?

• What experience do you have successfully working with a wide variety of civilian and military stakeholders and balancing competing priorities, approaches, and objectives?

Here are some of the suggested questions from the think tanks:

• Do you agree with Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ [May 24, 2011] statement, [“I have long believed, and I still do, that the defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes?”] If so, what is the logic for cutting defense spending even further than it already has been so far during wartime? Should defense be given higher priority than other areas of federal spending?

• Presuming that President Obama’s additional proposed cuts will include a reduction in the size of America’s armed forces, what “places” would you recommend that we forego going to and what “things” would you recommend that the American military stop doing?

• Do you agree with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen’s recommendation [to identify savings in military pay and benefits before making cuts to the “force structure”]?

• As China develops and tests increasingly-capable stealth aircraft, like the J-20, and as Russia develops and sells resilient air defense systems, would you support reviewing the previous decision to end procurement of the F-22 Raptor at 187? Do you favor creating an export variant of the F-22 for sale to allied air forces?

• Do you support Secretary Gates’ proposals to reduce the end-strength of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps?

What would you ask Panetta? Share your suggested questions in the comments section below.