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Senate panel endorses Panetta's nomination as defense secretary

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Leon Panetta's balancing act
  • The Senate Armed Services Committee's unanimous backing was expected
  • The nomination now goes to the full Senate for consideration
  • If confirmed, Panetta will succeed Robert Gates

Washington (CNN) -- The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday endorsed Leon Panetta's nomination to become defense secretary when Robert Gates steps down at the end of June.

A brief statement from committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin's office said a unanimous voice vote sent Panetta's nomination to the full Senate for consideration. Committee approval was widely expected after Panetta, the current CIA director, received bipartisan support during last week's confirmation hearing.

Senators from both sides of the aisle offered effusive praise for the 72-year-old nominee, who pledged to be a "tireless advocate for our troops and their families."

After the hearing, Panetta traveled to Pakistan in his role as CIA director for his first meetings with Pakistani officials since the U.S. raid last month on Osama bin Laden's compound that left the al Qaeda leader dead.

The relationship between the two countries has been rocky amid disputes over how to pursue counterterrorism efforts. The United States believes Pakistan is not doing enough to go after al Qaeda and other extremists, while the Pakistanis are upset with what they consider to be unilateral steps taken by the United States within their borders.

Panetta said at his Senate confirmation hearing that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is "difficult" but "critical." Though Pakistan has proven to be a safe haven for extremists, a positive relationship with authorities in Islamabad is vital to the mission in Afghanistan, he said.

Panetta took over at the CIA in February 2009 and served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton between 1994 and 1997. Before that, the California Democrat served as director of Clinton's Office of Management and Budget, a position requiring mastery of tricky fiscal situations and an understanding of the federal government's sprawling bureaucracies.

Panetta also served in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, a period in which he established deep congressional ties.

President Barack Obama has nominated Gen. David Petraeus, currently head of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to replace Panetta at the CIA.