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Senators challenge White House on why there’s no nominee for TSA chief

A bi-partisan group of Senators is questioning why the White House has not nominated a new Transportation Security Administration head more than three months after the agency’s previous leader announced he was stepping down, saying that TSA should be a greater priority at a time of heightened concern about terrorist threats to the homeland.

In a letter sent to President Obama late Monday, the Senators – led by John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation – urged the President to “prioritize the formal nomination of a qualified, experienced, and dedicated individual” to serve as TSA administrator.

John Pistole, who had been administrator since 2010, announced his intention to retire in mid-October, and his last day was Dec. 31.

“Our nation faces evolving terror threats that have recently resulted in enhanced TSA security screening and procedures at U.S. airports,’’ said the letter, also signed by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “Given this intensified terror threat and the vacancy set into motion when former Administrator Pistole announced his plans to retire over three months ago, it is critical that TSA have strong leadership now to set priorities, make tough decisions, and manage its large workforce.’’

A White House spokesman did not have an immediate response to the letter Monday evening, and a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security – of which TSA is a part – did not respond to a request for comment.

Created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to enhance airport security, TSA has had its share of issues, including a hemorrhaging of personnel in recent years and what current and former TSA officials have described as massive morale problems. In a statement last week, however, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson extolled TSA’s performance in 2014, saying the agency screened nearly 1.8 million passengers a day and discovered more than 2,200 firearms in carry-on bags, a 22 percent increase from 2013.

Though Pistole brought a measure of stability to TSA’s most senior ranks, the agency went leaderless for months in 2010 before he was confirmed, as two earlier candidates withdrew after their nominations ran into problems. At a time of concern over attacks by groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda – which has long targeted airplanes – the five Senators urged the White House to move swiftly, and said any nominee would receive “full and fair consideration.’’

It is unclear if the recent Republican takeover of the Senate majority and the general gridlock on Capitol Hill are playing into the Obama administration’s thinking on a TSA nominee. The administration entered its final two years with a large number of senior Cabinet agency posts unfilled, according to a recent White House analysis. In most cases, the reason was that the nominees for those jobs had not been confirmed by the Senate.