Panetta to fly to Europe for NATO meeting

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have one foot out the door at the Pentagon, but he’s headed to Europe next week for a NATO meeting of defense ministers.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said Friday that Panetta would travel to Europe for next week’s NATO meeting, a trip the secretary had hoped to avoid.

The Pentagon and White House had wanted President Obama’s choice to succeed Panetta, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), in the job for the NATO meeting, where U.S. plans to withdraw 34,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next year will be a major topic.

Republicans, however, blocked Hagel’s confirmation Thursday on a 58-40 procedural vote that needed 60 votes. The Senate is in recess until Feb. 25, meaning Hagel has more than a week to wait before he can be confirmed.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted Republicans for holding up Hagel’s confirmation, saying it was the first filibuster in history of a Defense secretary nominee.

Reid also said that the United States would be without a Defense secretary as of Thursday.

While Panetta did travel back to his California home Thursday — where he will retire to his walnut farm — he remained in his position as Defense secretary. And he will stay on until his successor is in place, defense officials say.

He is eager to retire, however, and less eager to take another trip abroad in a job where he’s already had his farewell ceremony.

“The second best Valentine's present would be to allow Sylvia and I to get the hell out of town at the end of the day,” Panetta said of he and his wife at an event Thursday honoring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.