Senate unanimously approves Panetta as new Defense chief

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved Leon Panetta's nomination to become the next defense secretary.

Panetta, the current CIA chief, is expected to be sworn in by July 1. He immediately will inherit a military fighting two wars and readying for a round of White House-ordered budget cuts.

Panetta will replace outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has had what President Obama, lawmakers, and defense experts agree has been one of the most impressive tenures in history at the Pentagon.

Members of both parties took to the Senate floor Tuesday to praise Panetta, though they voiced differences over the shape of Afghanistan war policy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, said he favors withdrawing some troops, but indicated that he favors a minimal withdrawal. Graham said the addition of troops 18 months ago is what has helped the U.S. achieve some success in Afghanistan, and said that should not be undermined.

"So I hope that the president, listening to Leon Panetta, Secretary Gates and Secretary Petraeus, will tell the American people, we can start bringing forces home beginning this summer because we've been successful, and we're not going to do anything to undermine that success because it's come at such a heavy price," Graham said.

Earlier this month in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta mostly held his cards close to his chest, but did provide a light into his thinking on several issues.

He refused to provide a specific figure for how many U.S. troops could be removed from Afghanistan this year, but he did tell the committee that he and Gates typically agree on such issues.

President Obama is slated to announce on Wednesday evening how many troops he will order be removed from Afghanistan this year. Early media reports have been scattered, but some have said up to 30,000 forces will be removed.

The incoming defense secretary also has made clear he supports Obama’s plan to cut $400 billion from national security agency budgets over the next 12 years.

But he also told the panel those funding reductions should avoid creating a “hollowed” military force.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) added that Panetta will also have to deal with the U.S. presence in Iraq, and how to continue operations in Libya, but said Panetta is up to the task of meeting these three difficult challenges.

"I have outlined some of the challenges that lay before Mr. Panetta," he said. "I have the highest confidence, however, that he is their equal."

On Iraq, Panetta became the first Obama administration official to forecast that Iraqi officials soon will ask Washington to keep American forces there beyond this year. Under an existing Washington-Baghdad agreement, all U.S. forces must be removed by Jan. 1.

Panetta also has made clear he plans to examine military personnel programs, including its vast health care enterprise, to find savings as Pentagon budgets shrink.

Experts say this effort, pushed by Gates in his final months, will require political skill and will. That’s because cutting troops’ benefits while two wars are still hot will be politically difficult, especially as the 2012 election cycle heats up.

Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this story.