Chertoff "did make very clear that if the (Sept. 11) bill goes to the White House with the current provision related to TSA personnel authorities, his recommendation, and that of other senior administration officials, would be to veto it," department Spokesman Russ Knocke told UPI.
One of the provision's strongest backers, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, told UPI in a statement that a veto would also kill numerous other provisions of the law. "I hope that the president would consider all the improvements made by this legislation to protect the nation before making veto threats," he said.
"Whether there are positive elements of the bill or not," responded Knocke, the administration's view was that "the issues relating to the TSA are so extraordinarily problematic, that there should be no doubt in anyone's mind" about the need for a veto.
Senate debate on the bill, which Democrats say implements the remaining recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission, is slated to begin Wednesday, along with a slew of other measures addressing rail and aviation security, emergency communications, cargo security, nuclear proliferation, and national standards for drivers' licenses.
The House has already passed its version of the bill, which includes the labor rights language along with dozens of other provisions and authorization for billions of dollars of homeland security spending.
A letter Tuesday to President Bush from 36 GOP senators shows the votes are there to sustain a veto, according to GOP aides.
"Removing this (labor) flexibility from TSA was not recommended by the Sept. 11 Commission and it would weaken our homeland security," wrote the senators. "If the final bill contains such a provision, forcing you to veto it, we pledge to sustain your veto."
The provision at issue was introduced as an amendment to the bill while it was in committee, and passed on a party-line vote. It repeals a footnote in the 2001 law setting up the TSA, which gave the agency's director wide discretion to decide issues of union and other labor rights for the 40,000-plus passenger and baggage screeners it employs.
Officials say that discretion grants flexibility to the agency that is essential for aviation security, enabling it to respond to emergencies like the discovery last summer of a plot in London to bomb U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives, or the recent closure of Denver airport.