With a feuding Senate holding up approval of his successor, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday joked that he hoped he would be allowed “to get the hell out of town” and retire as planned.
At an event honoring recently retired Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 74-year-old Panetta said he was anxious to relinquish the reins as Pentagon chief and expressed envy that Clinton had been liberated from her duties.
“She’s made it. And, you know, I’m going to have as broad a smile as she does, hopefully, in a few days,” he told military officers and diplomats at the Pentagon.
“My office is packed up,” he said, and his wife, Sylvia, was packing up his home in Washington. “I’m ready to go. It’s like, ‘All right.’”
Senate approval of President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has been thrown into doubt this week with Republicans threatening to block a vote on his confirmation.
Hagel was only narrowly approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday along strict party lines, and some Republicans say the former senator and fellow Republican is a poor choice for the Pentagon job, citing his past statements on Israel and Iran.
In the meantime, Panetta has gone ahead with a series of farewell events over the past two weeks and planned to fly to California Thursday to have a Valentine’s dinner with his wife. But his aides said Panetta would remain fully engaged as defense secretary until his successor was in place.
At Thursday’s ceremony, Panetta’s sarcasm about his delayed retirement revealed more than a hint of exasperation with Congress, which he has slammed repeatedly for failing to break a budget impasse due to partisan politics.
Panetta praised Clinton for her work as the top diplomat, and the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, presented her with a medal for “exceptionally superior service.”
Panetta called the award ceremony a “great Valentine’s Day present” for the Defense Department.
But he added: “The second best Valentine’s present would be to allow Sylvia and I to get the hell out of town at the end of the day.”
Panetta recalled getting to know Clinton during her husband’s presidency in the 1990s, and that many of the issues that dominated Washington then are still in play, from gun control to health care to budget deficits.
He said “the only thing that has changed is that Hillary and I are a little older, perhaps a little wiser, a little less patient, particularly with political dysfunction, a little bit less tolerant of B.S. in general.
“And it is probably a good thing at this point in time that we have a chance to get some damn rest.”