By Margaret Talev | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — An attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day would be all-consuming for the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration — if there were one.
The post remains vacant because Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has held up President Barack Obama’s nominee in opposition to the prospect of TSA workers joining a labor union.
As al Qaida claimed responsibility Monday for the thwarted attack and President Barack Obama made a public statement about it, Democrats urged DeMint to drop his objection and allow quick confirmation of nominee Erroll Southers, a counterterrorism expert, when the Senate reconvenes in three weeks.
Obama, speaking from Hawaii, where he and his family are vacationing, told Americans, “We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable.”
Obama warned anyone plotting against the U.S. from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere that he doesn’t intend to rest at simply strengthening defense.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee announced a hearing to be set for next month to examine how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian whose name was in a terrorism database, boarded a plane with explosive material.
“Why aren’t airline passengers flying into the U.S. checked against the broadest terrorist database and why isn’t whole body scanning technology that can detect explosives in wider use?” said committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.
Meanwhile, Florida Republican Rep. John Mica said in a statement that the TSA had grown lost and bloated in bureaucracy and called for a review.
Mica also said Congress “must change the process by which TSA administrators serve. There has been no TSA administrator for nearly a year and the next one will be the fifth in eight years. Running a security agency with a revolving door is a recipe for failure.”
Janet Napolitano, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, of which the TSA is part, made the rounds of morning television news programs on Monday, backing away from her initial stance that the system had worked in averting attack.
She told NBC that “our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way.”
Southers, a former FBI special agent, is the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence. He also is the associate director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, and he served as a deputy director of homeland security for California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Two Senate committees have given Southers their bipartisan blessing. An acting administrator is in place pending his confirmation.
Marshall McClain, the president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, said that the Senate should have acted sooner to confirm Southers.
“Friday’s terrorist attack on U.S. aviation makes it all the more imperative that there be no further delays in filling this crucial position,” he said.
DeMint said in a statement that the attempted attack “is a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA.” He wants Southers to clarify his stand on unionizing the TSA, a shift that Democrats support.
Without collective bargaining, DeMint said, the TSA has “flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack.”
If organized labor got involved, DeMint said, union bosses would have the power “to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports.”
He urged Obama to “re-think” supporting unionizing the TSA “and put the interests of American travelers ahead of organized labor.”
DeMint also wants a Senate floor debate and roll call votes, not confirmation by consent as the Democrats sought.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hadn’t scheduled a floor vote for Southers before the Senate left town on Christmas Eve.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Monday that the majority leader is working with the White House to get Southers confirmed “as quickly as possible” and charged that “Republican obstructionism has prevented TSA from having the leadership in place that the organization deserves.”
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said that Obama didn’t nominate Southers until September, and he charged that Reid “has been too busy trading earmarks for votes on health care” to deal with DeMint’s concerns.
DeMint’s objection creates a procedural hurdle that could take three days of debate and test votes to overcome, or could potentially be limited if Democrats offered DeMint a compromise. No one was taking conciliatory stance on Monday, however. Manley called DeMint’s opposition “disgraceful.”
(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)
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