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New Defense Secretary Panetta Expected to Wield Budget Ax

Leon Panetta, Photo: CIA.gov

In his new role as head honcho of the Defense Department, observers say Leon Panetta — maybe even more than predecessor Robert Gates — is expected to continue and perhaps even expand departmental budget cuts and cost-savings.

His managerial elan, which earned him rave reviews at the CIA where he is credited with boosting morale, and his familiarity with Capitol Hill, were likely key factors in President Barack Obama’s decision to shuffle the national-security cards in Panetta’s favor.

But inheriting an uncertain budget deal at the Pentagon won’t be easy.

Earlier this month, Obama announced his plans to wring even more cost-savings from the Pentagon — $400 billion over the next 12 years. However, as The Hill reports, Gates and the Pentagon were unenthusiastic about further cuts. Panetta has close ties to the White House, which could bode well in getting top Pentagon civilian brass on board with budget reductions, but not necessarily the rank and file.

“Secretary Gates was strongly committed to maintaining a robust defense posture, but Panetta will be more interested in getting along with the White House, which must find ways of cutting the deficit,” the Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson told The Hill.

In an op-ed for CNN Money, Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, said the defense budget is inflated because of “reckless growth in the defense budget” stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks, and there is “plenty that can be trimmed.”

But many of the cuts would be politically unpalatable, including reductions to military healthcare, known as Tricare, and to military pay.

And even if Panetta does champion difficult but necessary cuts, Congress could dig in its heels.

“Any cuts the administration proposes, no matter how carefully tailored to meet the nation’s strategic needs, can be rejected by congressional appropriators,” Korb wrote.

The speculation that Panetta, who had earned praise as CIA chief, would take over for Gates when he departs (likely sometime this summer) had been percolating for sometime. The Associated Press broke the story this week and Obama will make the official announcement today.

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