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Washington (AFP) Feb 13, 2013
Looking back at a long political career, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday lamented an increasingly bitter atmosphere in Washington, saying there was "too much meanness" on display.
His comments come amid a mounting budget crisis in a deeply divided Congress and after Republican lawmakers renewed threats to block the appointment of the man nominated to succeed Panetta at the Pentagon, former senator Chuck Hagel.
Panetta, who served for decades in Washington as an influential lawmaker before holding powerful posts under two Democratic presidents, said his only "disappointment" in his job as Pentagon chief was how Congress sometimes failed to play a constructive role.
"I always felt that -- you know, that the leadership in the Congress and the leadership of whatever administration was involved here, that when it came to the big issues facing this country, that there was a willingness to work together to resolve those issues," he told a news conference.
"There will always be party differences. There will always be political differences. There will be ideological differences," he said.
"But there are also some lines that are there that make that process work, lines that involve mutual respect; lines that involve, you know, courtesy and a degree of respect for each other, despite whatever their decisions are."
But traditions of courtesy and civility were "breaking down" among lawmakers, he said.
"It becomes too personal. It becomes too mean," he said.
"Everybody's got legitimate points, but there's a way to express it in a way that compliments our democracy, doesn't demean our democracy. And I think, you know, what you see on display is too much meanness."
Panetta first entered politics as an aide to a Republican senator, Thomas Kuchel, in 1966, then served under president Richard Nixon in the Office for Civil Rights, before resigning over differences with the White House.
He left Washington and worked for New York City Mayor John Lindsay and later was elected as a Democrat to Congress from California, serving for 17 years.
During Bill Clinton's presidency, Panetta served as budget director and later chief of staff. Under President Barack Obama, Panetta led the CIA from 2009 to 2011 and then served as defense secretary.
Republicans force delay on US defense chief vote
Senators James Inhofe and Lindsey Graham have expressed strong opposition to rushing the confirmation process, and after Hagel was narrowly approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday along strict party lines, the Republicans insisted they would try to block a vote in the full Senate.
"This is the first time in the history of our country that a presidential nominee for secretary of defense has been filibustered. What a shame," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the floor of the chamber.
To overcome the blocking tactic, Reid scheduled a vote for Friday to end debate on the Hagel nomination, but such a procedure requires a 60-vote threshold rather than the typical simple majority.
Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate. No Democrats are expected to vote against Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and Republican former senator. However, just two Republicans have publicly stated their support.
It remained an open question whether there were another three Republicans willing to cross party lines and allow the nomination to get to the floor.
"I would hope we would have 60 votes," Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told AFP. "I have not heard that there are not, let me put it that way."
If confirmed, Hagel would replace outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta at a time of rising tension in Middle East hotspots, in the budget battle at home and after this week's rogue nuclear test by North Korea.
Senate Democrats have warned that now is not the time to waffle over a crucial cabinet member who directs the US military, and the White House has called for expeditious action to fill the vital post.
Spokesman Jay Carney said the White House has "100 percent confidence" that there was "majority (support for Hagel) and then some."
"So we ask Congress -- the Senate -- to move quickly to confirm him as secretary of defense."
Inhofe sought to downplay his effort to block a vote, insisting there was "nothing unusual" about it.
"I'd vote tonight if we could just get the information that's been requested by the Republican members of the Armed Services Committee."
He and colleagues have taken issue with several comments and votes by Hagel in recent years about Iran, nuclear weapons, Israel and the US troop surge in Iraq.
They have demanded financial compensation data and transcripts from speeches Hagel gave to foreign audiences, saying some records are missing.
Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin said the demands went beyond the level traditionally asked of nominees.
But Graham said he would "take every opportunity" to block a Hagel vote in order to get the questions answered.
"I don't think I'm being unfair to the process by saying 'slow down,'" Graham told reporters.
"I remember very well what the Congress did when it came to Bush administration failures. We provided oversight," he said, recalling bruising congressional investigations of the past.
"If the shoe were on the other foot, and this was a Republican president, I'd guaran-damn-tee there'd be a lot of Democrats doing what I'm doing."
On Wednesday, moderate Republican Susan Collins came out in opposition of Hagel, but stressed she would not prevent a floor vote.
"I oppose senator Hagel's nomination, but I cannot join in a filibuster to block each senator's right to vote for or against him," she said.
Republican Marco Rubio however was supporting the delay.
"It's not the preferred route," he told AFP, but "there is more information that we need to learn."
Democracy in the 21st century at TerraDaily.com
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