Leon Panetta was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as secretary of Defense, taking the helm at the Pentagon as President Obama’s national security policy reaches a pivotal juncture amid growing discontent in Congress over expansive overseas military operations at a time of stark budget deficits.
Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, will replace Robert M. Gates, who is retiring after serving in two administrations, as the White House overhauls its national security team.
Panetta’s confirmation came as Obama is about to address the nation this week on a planned drawdown of troops in the Afghanistan and as Congress is increasingly frustrated over the administration’s stance on the U.S. military’s role in Libya.
Senators debated the administration’s Afghanistan policy while considering Panetta’s confirmation Tuesday, underscoring the challenge facing the new Defense chief. Despite the disagreement over Afghanistan, however, Republicans and Democrats spoke in favor of Panetta’s nomination.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the choice of Panetta was a “wise and solid one.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called Obama’s nominee “a home-run choice.”
Panetta, a former House member from California, also draws on his background as a former White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton.