The world is nervously watching a dysfunctional Congress and wondering "whether or not we can rise to the challenges" that face the United States, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
At what he described as his final Pentagon news conference, Panetta used the occasion as a tongue-lashing of the institution where he used to serve. Visibly frustrated with Congress' continuous partisan squabbling, he said that while America's global reputation as a world leader remains intact, it was clear that doubts and concerns are beginning to grow in the minds of many around the world, allies and enemies alike.
"What you see on display is too much meanness," he said. "Somehow the members of both the House and Senate side have to get back to a point of where they really respect the institution they are a part of."
Panetta said his proudest accomplishments as defense secretary included weakening international terrorism; overseeing the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden; winding down the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and keeping the country safe.
But he said his greatest frustration is that his exit from the post he has held since July 2011 comes as the Defense Department faces deep program cuts that he said would affect military training and readiness.
Without an agreement between Congress and the White House by March 1, the government faces $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that experts have said could, apart from their impact on people and programs, severely hamper the economic recovery.
The thinking behind the plan, crafted by congressional Republicans and the White House, was that the cuts would be so draconian that both sides would reach a solution before they occurred. So far that hasn't happened.
Panetta, who served 16 years in the House of Representatives as a congressman from California, beginning in 1977, looked back on more than three decades of public life. It included appointments as director of the Office of Management and Budget, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama, before taking over at the Pentagon.
As he spoke, events across the Potomac River at the U.S. Capitol seemed to confirm his concerns.
Senate Republicans said they would filibuster the confirmation vote on Obama's choice to succeed Panetta as the civilian head of the military, former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican. If they do, Democrats would need at least 60 votes to confirm Hagel, not a simple majority, and would require some Republicans support.
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"What a shame, that's the way it is," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Panetta lamented the current state of federal politics, noting that while disagreement was a founding principle of American governance, the traditions of respect and courtesy have vanished in recent years and led to a "breaking down" of the effectiveness of Congress.
He described this political climate as "too personal, too mean ... and it demeans our democracy."
He began his news conference joking about the broken system, noting that as he watched the Hagel nomination process, he felt like he was watching "the last act of an Italian opera, not sure when it would end and when the fat lady would sing."
"We need to find solutions," Panetta said. "We can't just sit here and bitch."
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