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Successor in limbo, defense chief pines for Pentagon exit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With his successor's fate unclear, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly pined for retirement on Thursday, saying he was packed up and ready to take his wife, Sylvia, home for Valentine's Day and "get the hell out of here."

But the man nominated to replace the 74-year-old Panetta, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, faces stiff opposition from Senate Republicans who are threatening to hold up his confirmation vote - potentially delaying Panetta's retirement plans.

Panetta, longing to return to his California walnut farm after four years as Pentagon chief and CIA director, has repeatedly said goodbye to Pentagon and Washington officials in recent days, something he hoped he was doing once and for all at a ceremony on Thursday.

Still, he couldn't be sure.

"I feel like it's 'Groundhog Day' around here," Panetta joked at a Pentagon ceremony honoring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the movie "Groundhog Day" the main character lives the same day over and over.

"My office is packed up. Sylvia is packing at home. I'm ready to go. It's like, 'All right.'"

Panetta joked that Clinton's presence at the Pentagon was a great Valentine's Day gift to Defense Department employees.

"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," he quipped.

Aides say Panetta is likely to leave the Pentagon for California, regardless of what happens in the Senate on Thursday. But he will stay in office until Hagel's confirmation battle is resolved, potentially returning next week, they say.

Hagel, 66, broke from his party while in the Senate by opposing former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War, angering many of his Republican colleagues. Some members of his party have also raised questions about whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel, tough enough on Iran or capable of leading the Pentagon.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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