Congress appears increasingly unlikely to repeal a sweeping driver's license law by the end of the year, which may force the Homeland Security Department to grant blanket waivers to states unable or unwilling to issue licenses that meet federal security standards.
Without the waivers or a congressional repeal, the Real ID law goes into effect Jan. 1. Officials across the country fear that would set off a situation that could include a requirement that tens of thousands of airline passengers go through secondary screening at airports every day.
Senate Democrats have been unable to get an agreement from Republicans to bring legislation to the floor that would repeal Real ID, which many federal and state officials say is unworkable and some consider an unfunded mandate from Washington.
The legislation, dubbed the PASS ID bill, was approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in July but since then has been in limbo. Democrats concede the bill will not move until after the Senate acts on healthcare legislation, which is expected to consume much of the rest of this year's session.
"Because Republicans are continuing to block the legislation, we will not be able to consider the bill until we complete health reform," a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday.
State officials fear major problems if the PASS ID bill is not enacted this year. The bill would require states to issue driver's licenses that are compliant with federal security standards by 2016 and create a $150 million grant program to help states digitize birth records.
Last week, the National Governors Association urged House and Senate leaders to get the PASS ID bill through Congress soon.
"Based on a survey of our states, we believe that as many as 36 states will not meet the requirements of Real ID by the end of the year," the governors wrote in a letter to Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, D-Ohio.
"Since Real ID was enacted, states have maintained that its timelines and requirements are unrealistic and constitute a huge unfunded mandate with costs far outpacing federal funding," the letter added.
It was not immediately clear which Republicans were holding up the PASS ID bill.
But one possible way to avert the situation might be for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to grant waivers to states in December, declaring them to be in compliance with Real ID requirements even if they are not.
Homeland Security set a precedent for this in spring 2008, when waivers were granted to states to avoid a looming deadline. Some states, such as South Carolina, received waivers even though they did not request them and had no plans to comply with Real ID's requirements.
Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said states have until Tuesday to request waivers.
"Since January, Secretary Napolitano has supported the efforts of governors and Congress to enact PASS ID, which provides greater flexibility to states while enhancing driver's license security across the country," Chandler said. Officials "are ever more aware of the serious problems states will have with implementing REAL ID," he added.
"We urge Congress to act now on the PASS ID Act, which will resolve an impasse with the states and fulfill a key 9/11 Commission recommendation that will ensure the smooth flow of travel after December 31, 2009, and the security of all state-issued identification cards," Chandler said.