Senate panel could take up Panetta nomination for defense chief Tuesday

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the panel could vote on Leon Panetta’s nomination to be defense secretary as soon as next Tuesday.

The panel likely will take up Panetta’s nomination as it begins marking up its 2012 Pentagon authorization measure, Levin told reporters Friday.

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The chairman anticipates nothing that would hold up the CIA director’s nomination to move over to the Pentagon.

Panetta appeared before the panel Thursday for his confirmation hearing, and largely aligned himself with many of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s policy stances.

Panetta refused to provide a definitive figure for how many U.S. troops should be removed from Afghanistan this year, but said he and Gates typically come down “hand-in-hand” on such issues.

The nominee also said he supports President Obama’s call for $400 billion in national security funding cuts, but wants to avoid creating a “hollowed” military force.

On Iraq, Panetta went the furthest of any Obama administration official yet in predicting Iraqi officials will ask Washington to keep American forces there beyond this year, when a security pact expires.

Meantime, as his panel gets ready to spend four days next week crafting its Pentagon authorization bill, Levin told The Hill he has yet to decide on a top line figure -- even as members of both parties say military spending cuts are necessary.