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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to confirm outgoing Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta as the new secretary of defense, replacing the retiring Robert Gates.
Panetta, 72, who has held a variety of senior posts in Washington dating back decades, was nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Pentagon. Panetta is expected to start his new job on July 1.
The rare 100-0 vote followed a debate that saw praise for Panetta and anxiety about the challenges he will face to push defense budgets lower and oversee the start of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The troop pullout is due to begin next month and Obama is expected to present a blueprint for it in a prime-time speech to Americans on Wednesday.
"The next secretary of defense will have to struggle with the competing demands on our forces while Washington struggles with an extremely challenging fiscal environment," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said.
He said Panetta's lengthy experience made him the right man for the job. As CIA director since February 2009, Panetta had been "intimately" involved in the most pressing national security issues, Levin said -- personally overseeing the manhunt that ended in last month's covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda.
During his confirmation hearing, Panetta broadly signaled his alignment with Gates, saying they tended to "walk hand in hand" on many issues. Gates has warned against hasty troop drawdowns in Afghanistan.
Senators of both parties lauded Gates, who is stepping down after four and a half years as Pentagon chief, first under former President George W. Bush and then Obama.
While there was no argument about Panetta's qualifications, his confirmation did produce Senate debate on Afghanistan.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said the United States could not afford the war any longer as it "drowns in a sea of debt." Manchin urged Obama to "end the scope of our current mission well before 2014," when the lead in Afghanistan's security is due to be turned over to Afghan forces.
"I believe it is time for President Obama to begin a substantial and responsible reduction of our military presence in Afghanistan," Manchin told the Senate. "I believe it is time for us to rebuild America, not Afghanistan."
Senator John McCain called Manchin's comments isolationist, while fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said it was important not to leave faster than Afghan security forces are able to fight militants without the help of U.S. troops.
Obama will outline his plan for the U.S. troop pullback in Afghanistan in a televised address at 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT) on Wednesday.
Panetta told Congress he would ensure fiscal discipline in the U.S. military, saying the days of "unlimited" defense budgets were over.
Panetta was budget director for former President Bill Clinton and helped shape decisions that led to budget surpluses of the late 1990s, Levin said. Panetta is also a former member of Congress and once chaired the House budget committee.
Decades ago, Panetta headed the Office of Civil Rights in the administration of Republican President Richard Nixon. But he won election to the House of Representatives as a Democrat and worked for Democratic administrations after that.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Anthony Boadle