Sen. Jim DeMint has locked a "hold" on President Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration over concerns the nominee would undermine safety by allowing airport security screeners to unionize, the latest in a series of appointments stymied by Republican objections that are increasingly frustrating the Senate's Democratic majority.
The South Carolina Republican single-handedly put the brakes on the nomination with a "hold" - an informal practice by which a senator can keep a nomination or legislation from going to the Senate floor. It is virtually the only weapon left in the minority's arsenal to affect the chamber's business now that Republicans don't have enough votes in their caucus to mount a filibuster on their own.
Mr. DeMint blocked the vote on Erroll Southers, a top cop at Los Angeles International Airport, because he says the nominee is ducking questions about whether he would consider reversing current policy by opening the door to unionizing the security screeners.
Critics say the change would jeopardize national security by imposing union work rules that could hamstring the government's ability to quickly adapt to evolving terrorist threats.
"It's very simple. Giving union bosses control over security at our nation's airports is dangerous and will harm our ability to respond to serious threats," Mr. DeMint said. "If President Obama's nominee will not commit to putting homeland security above the whims of union bosses, it should give everyone serious concern."
Mr. Southers, assistant chief in charge of security and intelligence at the Los Angeles airport's police department, pledged he would not support any policy that compromised security. But he has avoided giving the "yes or no" answer Mr. DeMint wanted on the union question.
At least a half dozen of Mr. Obama's appointments are in the grip of Republican holds, many of which seemingly have little to do with the nominees' qualifications.
For instance, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky is holding the nomination of Miriam Sapiro for U.S. trade representative because the Canadian Parliament is considering a ban on adding candy flavorings to cigarettes; Sen. George V. Voinovich is blocking Robert Perciasepe for deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency because, the senator says, the agency is underestimating the cost per household of proposed climate-change legislation.
Republicans also are tying up the nominations of Martha Johnson for administrator of the General Services Administration, Tom Shannon for ambassador to Brazil, Alan Solomont for ambassador to Spain and Paul Anastas for EPA assistant administrator.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has complained that Republicans "are simply so opposed to everything - absolutely everything - that they even oppose putting people in some of the most important positions in our government."
Republicans argue they are standing on principle and using what power they have in the chamber to affect legislation and policy.
Sen. Tom Coburn has emerged as a prodigious practitioner of the hold. He held up a $4 billion veterans bill for weeks trying to persuade lawmakers to find spending cuts elsewhere to pay for the measure, which would pay monthly stipends and medical benefits to family members who care for injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Oklahoma Republican dropped the hold in return for a vote on an amendment to pay for the bill by cutting the U.S. contribution to the United Nations. The amendment failed and Mr. Coburn joined a 98-0 vote Nov. 19 to pass the new veterans benefits.
The use of holds is not a new phenomenon in the Senate, nor is it a refuge for a single party. The long-standing tradition has enabled any one of the Senate's 100 members to voice objections and make policy points about appointments and legislation.
Mr. DeMint, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's aviation operations, safety and security subcommittee, has kept his hold on Mr. Southers tightly focused on the nominee's reluctance to address the union question.
Mr. Southers avoided giving a definitive answer on the subject at a confirmation hearing and in an exchange of letters with Mr. DeMint.
While not saying whether he supported unionization, and noting he had previously worked as a chief officer in a unionized law enforcement agency, Mr. Southers pledged in an Oct. 14 letter to Mr. DeMint that he would put safety first in all decisions at TSA.
He said in the letter that he would not "support, recommend or endorse any system, practice or procedure that would potentially compromise the safety and security of the flying public."
Mr. DeMint characterized the response as an attempt to "hide behind rhetoric."
Under current law, TSA has discretion over whether to allow union representation of the security screeners. The agency has consistently decided against allowing unions for security reasons.