Obama's TSA Pick Withdraws From Consideration

President Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration has withdrawn from consideration. In a statement, Erroll Southers said he is pulling out because his nomination had become "a lightning rod" for those with a political agenda. The White House says Obama accepts Southers' decision with great sadness.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We have more information now about the latest development surrounding the Transportation Security Administration. President Obama's nominee to lead that office has withdrawn from consideration. In a statement, Erroll Southers said he was pulling out because his nomination had become, quote, a lightning rod for those with a political agenda.

NPR's Brian Naylor is covering this story. He's in our studios. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why did he consider himself a lightning rod?

NAYLOR: There were two issues. One involved whether to grant collective bargaining rights to TSA employees, the screeners that we all see at the airport. Republican Jim DeMint from South Carolina had put a hold on Southers' nomination because he said Southers wasn't clear about whether he would allow the screeners to organize. They're already allowed to join a union, but they've not, up until now, been given collective bargaining rights.

INSKEEP: And then you see both security and a political dilemma here. The question, from the security standpoint, is how could you allow them the theoretical right to strike - say, if there's going to be some security emergency and...

NAYLOR: Right.

INSKEEP: ...of course, the other side is someone just against unions, basically.

NAYLOR: Well, that's exactly it. The Democrats, from President Obama and Secretary Napolitano, have said that you can have both. You can have collective bargaining rights with limits on job actions, and the flexibility to deploy people where they're needed. So - and it seems as though there were the 60 votes up until today in the Senate to pass the nomination despite the hold, and he had some Republican support. The ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, Senator Susan Collins, had, in the past, supported him. So it's not clear exactly where the numbers lie.

INSKEEP: Although there was this other issue, as well, having to do with Southers' past and a background check that he had ordered while in government service in the past.

NAYLOR: That's right. He was a former FBI agent and some two decades ago, took the opportunity to do a background check on the boyfriend of his then-estranged wife. He originally told the committee in his nomination hearing, in his confirmation hearing that he had asked an employee of the San Diego Police Department to run the background check. He later amended that to admit that, in fact, he had done the check himself. And he had been reprimanded by the FBI for doing that.

Again, the committee leaders, the chairman, Senator Lieberman - the independent from Connecticut - and the ranking Republican, Collins, said that Southers continued to have their support. But apparently, it seems as though maybe that support has withered in the past couple of days.

INSKEEP: So a bit of a mystery, at least as of this morning, as to why the White House would fold the tent here, or that Erroll Southers personally would fold the tent. But in any event, he is pulling out. He's withdrawing his nomination to head the Transportation Security Administration. You see their employees - if you're at an airport, you see TSA on the shoulders of the security guards there. It's a very important agency right now. What is this withdrawal mean for the leadership of that agency?

NAYLOR: Well, they've been without a permanent leader since President Obama took office. And this an agency - as you say, they're on the frontlines of the battle to keep terrorists from boarding aircraft. Their role has come into question in this most recent incident, on the Christmas Day alleged bombing attempt by the Nigerian man. There have also been controversies lately about a TSA screening manual that appeared online. So there's a lot of leadership issues there.

INSKEEP: Questions for somebody else to take over now. NPR's Brian Naylor, bringing us up to date.

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