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Panetta Will Watch Hagel Confirmation from Home in California

DoD photo(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has no plans to come back to Washington to attend Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, scheduled to take place Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday.

Panetta, who is at home in California, will watch it on C-SPAN, Little said.

Over the last few weeks Panetta has openly expressed frustration with Congress over the confirmation hold-up of the former Republican senator. At an event honoring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nearly two weeks ago, Panetta joked that Congress should give him a Valentine’s Day gift and let him and his wife “get the hell out of town.”

But that wish was not to be, as Senate Republicans pushed the vote until after the congressional recess, forcing Panetta to take one more trip as defense secretary to Brussels for the NATO defense ministers summit last week. Following the meeting, he returned to California, where Little says he will stay.

Panetta has also expressed dismay over the budget cuts the Pentagon will be forced to make if sequestration happens on March 1.  Last week he notified Congress of the potential 800,000 civilian employees who will have to be furloughed if the sequestration happens.

“For more than a year and a half, the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I have repeatedly voiced our deep concerns over the half a trillion dollars in automatic across-the-board cuts that would be imposed under sequestration and the severe damage that would do both to this department and to our national defense,” Panetta said in a letter to Pentagon employees. “I can assure you that, if we have to implement furloughs, all affected employees will be provided at least 30 days’ notice prior to executing a furlough and your benefits will be protected to the maximum extent possible.”

For months, Little has been communicating to journalists and the public about how deeply these cuts will hurt the defense department and America’s national security.

Last week, Little told reporters traveling with the secretary to the NATO meeting that the sequester will not only harm America’s military readiness, but also its military commitments around the world. Little said that, for example, training with European allies and rotational deployments of U.S. forces to Europe could be affected.

“You put this all together, lack of U.S. readiness equals NATO lack of readiness,” he said.

He reiterated that point to reporters Monday.

“We have not been overhyping this,” he said. “This is something we have been very forthright about for 18 months, and we will continue to express our opposition to a mechanism that will do harm to our national defense and could — if taken to the absurd extreme — hollow out the force.”

But Little is not only the Pentagon’s messenger on sequestration; he, too, would be directly affected. The position of Defense Department Spokesperson is not politically appointed and not subject to Senate confirmation, so he would not be eligible for a furlough exemption.

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