WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will force a vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration when the Senate reconvenes in three weeks.
Reid's announcement Tuesday that he will file a motion for cloture, a procedural step to limit debate and lead to a roll-call vote, follows the alleged attempt by a Nigerian extremist to blow up a U.S.-bound commercial flight Christmas Day.
Reid had sought Senate consent to confirm TSA nominee Erroll Southers without floor debate, along with multiple other nominations, before the Senate adjourned for its winter break Christmas Eve.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., objected, calling for more debate and temporarily halting the confirmation as part of his opposition to unionizing TSA, a move he believes Obama will push. With the health care debate running up to Christmas Eve, Reid had yet to make his next move on Southers.
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The alleged terrorist plot involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian whose name was in a terrorism database but who boarded a plane with undetected explosive material, has brought new urgency to the nomination.
White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said Tuesday that while the acting TSA administrator filling the job for now is "very able," DeMint and any others inclined to delay the vote "should put their short-term political interests aside."
DeMint said Tuesday in a statement that Reid had "completely ignored this nominee for weeks until the recent terror attempt" and was now grandstanding.
"I'm only looking for some time to debate the issue and have a vote so this isn't done in secret," DeMint said. He added he hoped the debate and the alleged terrorism attempt "will convince Reid and President Obama that we cannot give union bosses veto power over national security at our airports."
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said DeMint was being "petty and vindictive" and that "he can't have his cake and eat it, too. The fact is he objected to us confirming this nominee. The one who's grandstanding is Senator DeMint."
Southers, a former FBI special agent, is the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence. He also is 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 cleared Southers with bipartisan support. An acting administrator is in place pending his confirmation.
The TSA is one of two federal agencies charged with keeping potential terrorists off airplanes and out of the country that have been without their top leaders for nearly a year.
It took the Obama administration more than eight months to nominate anyone to lead the TSA and the Customs and Border Protection agency. Former U.S. attorney Alan Bersin is nominated to run the latter agency.
Denis McDonough, chief of staff of the White House National Security Council, downplayed the significance of the vacancies, although he said "the president is eager to have his TSA head on the job."
He praised Gale Rossides, the acting TSA administrator, and said there is "a very able team in the Department at Homeland Security, generally."
Some Republicans were critical.
"Running a security agency with a revolving door is a recipe for failure," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
Michael Chertoff, who headed the Homeland Security Department in the Bush administration, said "a year is too long a time" for the leadership positions to stay vacant.