Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told senators Tuesday that President Bush would be urged to veto the bill if it includes the collective bargaining language.
"While I'm not going to get into the details of what was said, Secretary Chertoff did convey to the members that if the bill makes its way to the White House with the current provisions related to TSA personnel management, the recommendation would be a veto," a spokesman said.
Chertoff was equally forceful talking to reporters after he met with senators Tuesday. "I'm not going to negotiate our national security or subject our national security to arbitration," he said. "Marines don't collectively bargain over whether they're, you know, going to end up being deployed in Anbar province or Baghdad."
Lieberman noted Wednesday that the provision has a long way to go to make it through floor debate and conference. "I believe in this proposal, so we're going to continue to fight for it and let the legislative process work its will," Lieberman said at a news conference.
National security would be improved if screeners had such rights because it would improve morale and likely reduce turnover, he said. He also called the provision "moderate to weak" because it would not allow screeners to strike and would give the Transportation Security Administration flexibility to manage screeners during crises.
Opponents scheduled what they called a "classified" briefing for senators Wednesday afternoon on why screeners should not have collective bargaining rights. The briefing was organized by Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, an aide said.
"The goal of this briefing is to educate them and hopefully get the more reasonable minds to reverse course," the aide said.
DeMint has said he will offer an amendment to strip the provision. And 36 Republican senators signed a letter to Bush vowing to sustain a veto, if necessary.
TSA screeners can now join unions -- indeed, many have -- but have no power to negotiate terms of their employment. The administration and Republican supporters argue that the Homeland Security Department needs absolute flexibility in managing the TSA workforce in order to rapidly respond to threats.
Advocates say it is only fair to give TSA screeners the same workforce protections afforded thousands of other department employees, such as those within Customs and Border Protection.
The veto threat and Chertoff's comments sent union officials reeling.
"If Secretary Chertoff really cares about national security he would take care of the incredible problems that are going on at the Department of Homeland Security in general and at TSA in particular," said Charity Wilson, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees. She noted that a recent Office of Personnel Management survey found that the Homeland Security Department scored last or almost last in job satisfaction, leadership and workplace performance.
"We have a history in this country of law enforcement and folks in the Department of Homeland Security working with collective bargaining agreements and it having absolutely no impact on national security," she added.
Wilson said AFGE will mount a rapid response campaign to contact Lieberman and other senators to build support for keeping the TSA provision in the final bill.
Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, also urged lawmakers to support the provision. She dismissed the idea that collective bargaining at TSA would harm the government's emergency response capabilities.
"Every union contract with federal agencies recognizes management's right to assign and detail workers as necessary," Kelley said in a letter to senators. "Management flexibility in times of crisis is set in statute."
Mark Wegner, Michael Deehan and Fawn Johnson of CongressDaily and Amelia Gruber of Government Executive contributed to this report.