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Senators Split Over Military Budget Priorities at Panetta Confirmation Hearings

June 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And to the big challenges facing the man poised to become head of the Defense Department.

For Leon Panetta, the transition from running the CIA to presiding over the Pentagon would come in the midst of a war in Afghanistan, a NATO mission in Libya, and a looming battle of a very different kind over impending budget cuts.

At his confirmation hearing today, senators split over how he should handle the challenges, starting with the military budget.

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin chairs the Armed Services Committee.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich. Armed Services Committee chairman: The next secretary of defense will be required to juggle the competing demands on our forces, while Washington struggles with an extremely challenging fiscal environment. The defense budget will not and shouldn’t be exempt from cuts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those cuts in the president’s budget add up to $400 billion in national security spending over the next dozen years. But Arizona Republican John McCain warned against making the military bear most of that burden.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis. And if the Congress and the president act on that flawed assumption, they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable: the decline of U.S. military power.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lawmakers agreed that Panetta’s past role as White House budget director back in the Clinton administration makes him well-suited to deal with tough fiscal decisions.

Those could include new weapons systems, like the Joint Strike Fighter. Panetta agreed today that some programs may simply prove too costly in a time of austerity.

LEON PANETTA, secretary of defense-designate: In the briefings that I have had, it’s obvious that this is an area that we have got to pay a lot of attention to. We have seen these weapons systems grow in cost. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to be able — from — from — from the beginning of — of moving that kind of weapons system to the time it’s finally developed, finally deployed, it almost becomes outdated.

We have got to improve that process.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, Panetta would inherit a military strained by 10 years of nearly continuous combat across several theaters. Some of the strain might be lessened by a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, expected to begin next month and be completed by the end of 2014.

With a debate now under way over possibly speeding up that drawdown, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels, emphasized again today that the pullout will not be allowed to jeopardize the mission.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers there will be no rush to the exits on our part, and we expect the same from our allies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back at the confirmation hearing, Senator McCain tried to get Panetta to spell out his stance.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: So, would you agree with Secretary Gates’ repeated statements that withdrawals in July should be — quote — “modest”?

LEON PANETTA: I agree that they should be conditions-based. And I’m going to leave it up to Secretary Gates and Gen. Petraeus and the president to decide what that number should be.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, if you’re the secretary of defense when that decision is made, obviously, you will have significant influence. You just came from a position where you have a very good assessment of the military situation. And I — I think it’s not inappropriate for you to answer when I ask if you agree with Secretary Gates’ assessment that the withdrawal should be modest.

LEON PANETTA: Senator, if I’m confirmed, I will have to obviously arrive at a decision myself that I will have to ultimately present to the president. But I’m not in that position now. And that decision really does rest with Gen. Petraeus and Secretary Gates and the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Gates leaves his Pentagon position later this month. Leon Panetta is expected to have an easy road to confirmation in the next few weeks.

Today, he promised that, if confirmed, he would engage in strong fiscal discipline, while maintaining a strong defense. But he also stressed that one of his most important jobs would be as an advocate for the troops and their families.