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Obama's TSA pick withdraws after Republican roadblock

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers, withdrew on Wednesday because of Republican concerns he would try to unionize the security force and doubts about the veracity of testimony he gave to the U.S. Senate.

Citing both issues, Republican Senator Jim DeMint had blocked Southers' nomination. Democrats, who control the Senate, had intended to try to break that roadblock this month following an airline bombing attempt in December.

"It is clear that my nomination has become a lightning rod for those who have chosen to push a political agenda at the risk of the safety and security of the American people," Southers said in a statement.

"This partisan climate is unacceptable and I refuse to allow myself to remain part of their dialogue."

It was another setback for President Barack Obama who has been trying to address growing security concerns after a Nigerian man tried to explode a bomb aboard a flight from Amsterdam as it was approaching Detroit on Christmas Day.

That incident prompted Democrats to press for a final vote this month on Southers' nomination.

"Southers was uniquely qualified for this job and it is with great sadness that the president accepted Southers' withdrawal," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

Obama in September chose Southers, a former FBI special agent, now assistant homeland security and intelligence chief for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department.

DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, blocked the nomination, saying Southers would unionize the TSA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for screening airline passengers at U.S. airports.

He also criticized testimony Southers gave to a Senate committee about improperly accessing law enforcement records that turned out to be incorrect.

"The White House never responded to requests for more information relating to Mr. Southers false testimony to Congress and his censure by the FBI for improperly accessing files," DeMint said in a statement.

"And Mr. Southers was never forthcoming about his intentions to give union bosses veto power over security decisions at our airports."

In an interview with Reuters, Southers said that he had relied on his memory when he testified about events surrounding a reprimand he received in 1988 for doing background checks on his estranged wife's boyfriend. He said he did not intentionally mislead lawmakers.

He said he met once with DeMint, but that the lawmaker declined further meetings.

"(Neither) my education, my expertise, nor experience were an issue. The integrity falsehood was a political charade to push an agenda against collective bargaining," said Southers.

Sixty of the Senate's 100 members must vote to lift one senator's hold on a nomination. Democrats will soon lose their 60th vote after Republican Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts on Tuesday to fill the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy, who died last year. It was not immediately clear when Brown would be sworn in.

(Additional reporting by Sue Zeidler in Los Angeles, editing by Alan Elsner)

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