Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he plans for his panel to vote next week to confirm John Pistole for the TSA, which has been without a permanent leader for more than a year.
But Pistole, who now serves as FBI deputy director, might have given heartburn to federal employee unions that want collective bargaining agreements for transportation security officers.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., asked Pistole if unionizing FBI agents would improve national security. Pistole said no, explaining that the bureau needs to be able to deploy agents quickly around the world on short notice.
Republicans like DeMint argue the government needs flexibility to provide a surge of screeners to airports around the country, so the same logic should apply at TSA.
TSA screeners can join unions, but have never had collective bargaining rights. And Pistole would not say whether he supports giving them those rights. Instead, he said he would review the matter and consult with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who ultimately would make a recommendation to President Obama.
Pistole is Obama's third choice to head TSA. Republicans placed a hold on Obama's first pick, Erroll Southers, largely because they feared he would support collective bargaining rights for screeners. Southers ultimately withdrew his name from consideration after questions arose about his misuse of FBI data when he worked at the agency.
Obama's second pick, retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding, also withdrew from consideration amid questions surrounding the work done by his former defense and intelligence contracting business.
But Pistole is a career civil servant who joined the FBI in 1983, and Democrats and Republicans alike Thursday said they believe he is the right choice for the job. Rockefeller said he "certainly" will vote to confirm Pistole.
During the hearing, Pistole said he would prioritize TSA's security work if confirmed, while acknowledging that doing so must be balanced with protecting the privacy rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens.
He said he wants TSA employees to view the agency as a "threat-based intelligence agency with a national security focus." Pistole said his top priority would be ensuring that TSA has the latest intelligence and threat information to make informed decisions.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also has the option of holding a confirmation hearing with Pistole.