Democrats and Republicans praised John Pistole on Thursday as the right person to head the Transportation Security Administration.
"I believe the president has made the right decision this time," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which held Pistole's first confirmation hearing Thursday.
President Obama's previous two nominees for the job withdrew after running into confirmation problems.
Pistole, who has held the No. 2 job in the FBI since October 2004, was called a skilled administrator with a national security background — and a hard worker and a tough guy.
"I think you have a set of credentials that is sorely needed at TSA," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
West Virginia Sen. John Rockefeller, the committee's chairman, said it's embarrassing how long the slot has been open — and he said the country has paid a price for that.
"People can work hard, but if they don't have a leader, something happens to them, eventually. You are that kind of leader," Rockefeller said. "You're qualified to lead this agency effectively and yesterday."
John Gage, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement that the lack of a TSA administrator has "certainly had a negative impact on the already low morale of the TSA workforce."
Senators pressed Pistole on how he would meet the competing demands of preventing terrorism while not overly burdening travelers.
"I think it's one of the most difficult positions in all of Washington because you have all of America ... getting mad at you for their inconvenience," Rockefeller said, "and I think there are going to have to be more inconveniences."
Some senators said they've gotten complaints from constituents about surly TSA employees and long security lines at airports.
Pistole said he agreed that "customer service has to be part and parcel of the security mission."
"Customer service has to be positive to keep the American public engaged while keeping security at the forefront," he said.
Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., said Americans are frustrated when an 85-year-old grandmother or young child is pulled aside for extra screening, even though most threats come from Islamic extremists.
"We need to do a better job of protecting against those who are going to do danger to us and trying to speed other people through who pose no danger to the American people," LeMieux said.
Republicans also urged Pistole to resist efforts to give collective-bargaining rights to TSA employees. Pistole said he is keeping an open mind as he conducts a review of the issue for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who will make the final decision.
If confirmed, Pistole will earn $155,500 heading an agency with a proposed budget of $8.2 billion.
The commerce committee will vote on Pistole's confirmation next week.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold its confirmation hearing on Pistole next week.