As Hearings Begin, Road to Confirmation Unsure for TSA Nominee Harding

As Hearings Begin, Road to Confirmation Unsure for TSA Nominee Harding
By Tim Starks, CQ Staff

Key Senate Democrats and the White House are eager for the confirmation of Robert A. Harding as head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — the Obama administration’s top unfilled post — and this week he appears before the two panels that are vetting his nomination.

But that doesn’t mean his path to confirmation is clear: President Obama’s initial pick for the job, Erroll G. Southers, encountered resistance only after being easily approved last year by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, both of which have jurisdiction over the TSA. And one of the same issues that bedeviled Southers’ nomination — the potential unionization of the agency — could also emerge as a problem for Harding, a retired Army major general.

After the two panels approved Southers’ nomination, Jim DeMint, R-S.C., placed a hold on it, saying he was perturbed that Southers had not taken a firm position on collective bargaining rights for TSA employees.

The nominee also took fire from Republicans over whether he misled Congress about improperly accessing federal databases in 1988, when he worked for the FBI, and he withdrew his name from consideration in January.

Some Republicans have claimed that collective bargaining rights would weaken national security, an argument Democrats reject. A White House spokesman said Harding would research the question of collective bargaining rights for TSA security personnel before making a decision.

“As the Department of Homeland Security has said before, Secretary [Janet] Napolitano will discuss this issue with her TSA administrator once he is able to make an informed recommendation, and then she will make the final decision,” said the spokesman, Nick Shapiro.

“If confirmed, Maj. Gen. Harding would like the opportunity to speak with a broad cross-section of TSA employees to seek their input, meet with stakeholder groups, and review any available information, but he of course would not support any system, practice or procedure that could potentially compromise the safety and security of the traveling public,” he added.

Republicans Stay Mum on Harding
DeMint and other Republicans are not saying much publicly about their approach to Harding’s nomination. The Commerce panel is scheduled to consider it Tuesday, and the Homeland Security Committee is to do so Wednesday.

After Obama nominated Harding on March 8, DeMint said in a statement: “I look forward to meeting with Gen. Harding to discuss how he would direct the TSA. He’s had a distinguished career in the Army, and I’m interested to hear how his military experience would inform his leadership of our nation’s transportation security.”

A spokesman for DeMint did not respond Monday to requests for additional information about DeMint’s opinion about the Harding nomination.

Republican staff on the Commerce Committee declined to comment in advance of the hearing. “The staff interview with Gen. Harding has been completed and the committee is preparing for the hearing on Wednesday. Beyond that, we cannot comment,” said Jeannine Gutman, a spokeswoman for Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel.

The TSA position has gone vacant since the start of the Obama administration. Obama nominated Southers in September. After the attempted bombing of a jet near Detroit on Dec. 25 — an incident that called attention to shortcomings in U.S. airport screening and intelligence efforts — Democrats tried, but failed, to shame Republicans into lifting their opposition to Southers.

Democrats Express Urgency
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., “is concerned that TSA has been without permanent leadership for so long and is anxious that the position of TSA administrator be filled,” said spokeswoman Leslie Phillips. “He has met with Gen. Harding, believes he is well qualified, and thinks the general’s intelligence background will serve TSA well.”

Phillips noted that other TSA nominees have declined to discuss their opinion on the collective bargaining issue during confirmation hearings.

In February, Napolitano told the House Homeland Security Committee that “my understanding is that we do have the authority to [do] collective bargaining under the current law.”

Besides questions about collective bargaining, Harding also could face questions about his role as CEO of Harding Security Associates, a company that he founded in 2003 and sold in 2009 and that did business with the Defense Department.

The White House has emphasized the urgency of approving Harding.

“The TSA administrator is the most important unfilled post in our administration,” Shapiro said. “The president believes Maj. Gen. Harding has the experience and perspective to make a real difference in carrying out the mission of the agency.”

He added: “If there was ever a nominee that warranted expedited, but thorough, consideration in the Senate, this is it.”

A majority aide for the Commerce panel, chaired by John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., echoed that sentiment.

“This is a highly distinguished nominee,” the aide said. “This committee obviously takes its responsibility of reviewing all its nominees very seriously. We look forward to a smooth confirmation process.”

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