By Barbara Starr and Larry Shaughnessy
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was packed up and ready, as he says, to "get the hell out of town." But it looks like he can't step aside just yet from the top job at the Pentagon.
The Senate on Thursday dashed Panetta's hopes of quickly confirming his intended replacement, Chuck Hagel, before the start of a one-week congressional recess.
Proponents failed to muster enough support in a procedural vote to end debate on Hagel's appointment and push the nomination toward a concluding vote.
Democrats are calling Republican opposition a filibuster, while GOP members say they simply want more time to address concerns.
By Mike Mount
Reducing the number of Afghan security forces could lead to an increase in Taliban violence inside that country as U.S. forces prepare to leave by the end of 2014, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin said Thursday.
Austin was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing to confirm him as the next top U.S. commander to oversee military operations in the Middle East. Austin said keeping a larger Afghan force would allow the Afghan government to mature under a bigger security umbrella.
Currently, the U.S.-led NATO operation has plans to reduce the number of Afghan forces from about 352,000 to around 230,000 after U.S. troops leave in 2014.
Afghan security forces were beefed up to improve security in tandem with the surge of U.S. troops in 2009. The larger number of Afghan troops would be too expensive to maintain and would eventually have to be reduced as security improved around the country, according to the NATO plan.
By Jamie Crawford
State Department spending would drop by more than $2 billion this year under mandatory, government-wide budget cuts due to take effect in March.
Secretary of State John Kerry detailed the cuts, known formally as sequestration, in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, saying they would have far-reaching consequences.
"Our ability to influence and shape world events, protect U.S. interests, increase job-creating opportunities for American businesses, prevent conflict, protect our citizens overseas, and defeat terrorism before it reaches our shores depends on day-to-day diplomatic engagement and increased prosperity worldwide," Kerry said.
He also said the cuts would "severely impair" efforts to "enhance security" of government facilities overseas and "ensure the safety of the thousands of U.S. diplomats serving the American people abroad."
By Pam Benson
A Senate committee vote on whether to confirm John Brennan as CIA director has been put off until lawmakers return from their recess at month's end.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein planned a vote for Thursday, but rules giving members more time to review transcripts of Brennan's testimony from last week's confirmation hearing will push back consideration.
There are also some other issues to resolve.
"Members on both sides of the aisle have asked that certain information be provided to the committee," Feinstein said in a statement.
In a sign the White House is scrambling to keep President Obama's defense secretary nominee afloat in the confirmation process, Vice President Joe Biden is making calls to Republican senators about former Sen. Chuck Hagel, according to a senior Democratic source.
This comes after the White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill stating that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf the same night as the terror attack against a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi last year. President Obama, according to the letter, did not make a call to the Libyan president until the evening of the day following the violence.
Read the letter obtained from a Democratic official here.
The three GOP senators–Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte–-had demanded answers about the attack in a letter Tuesday to the Obama administration before committing to vote on Hagel's nomination. Graham had publicly stated that he was specifically asking whether Obama called Libyan officials on the night of the attack against the consulate in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead.
By Jill Dougherty
Secretary of State John Kerry has asked his "old communicator and colleague," Jen Psaki, to be his chief spokeswoman, a senior agency official confirmed Wednesday.
Psaki is only in her 30s but she is an old hand at Democratic message-shaping. She worked with then-Senator Kerry on his 2004 presidential election bid and was President Barack Obama's deputy communications director.
Most recently, she has been senior vice president and managing director with the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic communications company.
Diplomats usually measure their words; Psaki doesn't mince words.