's delay on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary is giving outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta a bigger megaphone and more time to wage his outspoken campaign against automatic spending cuts he warns would "hollow out" the military.
The Senate Armed Services Committee abruptly put off until next week a planned Thursday vote on Hagel's nomination amid Republican demands for more information. Republicans have questioned the former Republican Nebraska senator's statements and votes on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons. Instead, the panel heard from a still-working Panetta. The Pentagon holds his farewell ceremony Friday, but he won't actually leave until Hagel is confirmed.
A seasoned in-fighter after four decades of government service, Panetta knows how to make persuasive arguments. And lately he's been making a concentrated case — in Sunday TV news shows, high-profile speeches and congressional testimony — against the Pentagon's share of mandatory spending cuts set to hit government-wide March 1.
"I cannot imagine that people would stand by and deliberately hurt this country in terms of our national defense by letting this take place," Panetta told the committee. He said the "sequestration" cuts could quickly turn the U.S. "into a second-rate power."
A day earlier, the Pentagon announced it was cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the volatile Persian Gulf region from two to one because of budget constraints.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, R-Mich., thanked Panetta for his "clarion call."
Neither party wants to jeopardize national security, but they can't find common ground on avoiding the cuts. Republicans don't want to raise taxes, while Democrats want a "balanced" mix of spending cuts and closing tax loopholes.
Speaking Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama appealed to the gathering of leaders to maintain the morning's bipartisan spirit a little longer to find "the common ground ... to take real and meaningful action."
Panetta said he favors a balanced, common-ground approach, but at this point might welcome anything that would just stop the cuts.
Follow Tom Raum on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tomraum