Panel urges delaying tougher rules for hemisphere travel

Senate appropriators moved Thursday to push back a deadline for travelers entering and leaving the United States to have a secure, government-approved identification document, with lawmakers saying the delay is needed to avoid a bureaucratic jam at the nation's borders.

The Appropriations Committee approved an amendment by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that would delay implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative until June 1, 2009. The amendment was approved as part of the fiscal 2007 spending bills for the Homeland Security and State departments.

The initiative, passed by Congress in 2004, requires travelers to and from the Americas, the Caribbean and Bermuda to have a passport or other accepted document that establishes the bearer's identity and nationality to enter or re-enter the United States.

Without the delay, the deadline would go into effect for all air and sea travelers by Jan. 1, 2007, and all land travelers by Jan. 1, 2008. The State Department is responsible for issuing the new identification documents, while DHS would have to install technology to read the documents.

State and DHS have been developing requirements for a new Passport Card to meet the requirements. The card is expected to contain biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, but it has not yet been determined whether it also will include other, more controversial technology, such as radio frequency identification chips.

Leahy said the looming deadline is "a train wreck on the horizon" because State and DHS lack sufficient coordination and have not involved the Canadian government enough. "It will be far easier and less harmful to fix these problems before this system goes into effect than to have to mop up the mess afterward," he said.

The Leahy-Stevens amendment also would require Homeland Security and State to certify to Congress that several policies and technology standards are met before the program moves forward.

Homeland Security officials said late Thursday they are confident they can meet existing deadlines, noting that the Leahy-Stevens amendment is not yet law. The House version of the fiscal 2007 spending bill is silent on the issue so the Senate provision would need to survive a legislative conference.

"For now, the implementation plan for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative remains unchanged," said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke. "We'll certainly continue to monitor the appropriations bill."

DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said a notice of proposed rulemaking will be "coming soon" to meet the law's requirements. He could not offer a more specific time frame. But he said the department does not see a need for an extension.

"The whole Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is to close a loophole which exists in travel throughout the Western Hemisphere ... so therefore we are going forward with the deadlines as they are," Agen said.

The idea of a delay was praised by others.

"I think it is unlikely they will be able to get all the new cards or traditional passports out to the affected population in time so there will not be a disruption next year," said C. Stewart Verdery, former DHS assistant secretary for policy and planning and now a principle with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti in Washington.

"Everybody's got to have something, including a one-time traveler coming from Kansas or New Mexico who may never have heard of this thing," he said.

Verdery represents industry associations including the Travel Business Roundtable, which supports a delay. He said he also hopes a delay would give the government time to examine whether new driver licenses that states must issue under the 2005 Real ID Act could work as a secure card for border crossing, as well as time to create a joint program with Canada.

"Right now Canada is waiting for technical specs on what they would have to build just to give their people something that would be readable by our readers," Verdery said. "We haven't given them any guidance."

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