June 14, 2011 / 5:38 PM / 6 years ago

UPDATE 1-Senate panel backs Panetta as U.S. defense chief

(Adds details, background)

WASHINGTON, June 14 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee enthusiastically backed Leon Panetta as the next Pentagon chief on Tuesday, agreeing in a unanimous vote to send his nomination to the full Senate for consideration.

Panetta, the outgoing head of the CIA, is expected to win a Senate floor vote to replace Robert Gates as U.S. Secretary of Defense but the exact timing of that vote is still uncertain.

Panetta, nominated by President Barack Obama, told Congress last week he would ensure fiscal discipline in the U.S. military, saying the days of "unlimited" defense budgets were over.

As CIA chief, he has been widely praised for last month's successful covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda.

If the full Senate confirms him, Panetta will face big pressures to push defense budgets lower and speed a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. That pullout is expected to begin next month.

During his confirmation hearing, Panetta broadly signaled his alignment with Gates, the outgoing defense secretary, saying they tended to "walk hand in hand" on many issues. Gates has warned against hasty drawdowns in Afghanistan.

Panetta, 72, is a long-standing Democrat who became Obama's director of the CIA in February 2009.

He continued drone strikes against suspected militants in tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan that had started in President George W. Bush's administration.

As spy chief, Panetta traveled to more than 30 countries.

He originally made his mark in Washington with success in cutting the federal budget deficit during the 1990s.

Former President Bill Clinton made him head of the Office of Management and Budget. Later, Panetta took over as Clinton's White House chief of staff.

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