House votes to slow down on passport, withholds funds

 

Beth Gorham, Canadian Press

Published: Saturday, June 16, 2007

WASHINGTON (CP) – In a sharp rebuke of American security plans, the House of Representatives voted Friday to force the administration to delay the passport rule at Canada-U.S. border crossings until mid-2009.

Legislators also moved to withhold US$100 million from funds earmarked by the Homeland Security Department to implement the passport requirement until the department has investigated whether high-tech driver’s licences could work just as well.

The overwhelming 379-45 vote is a major boost for Canada, which has long advocated a delay in requiring passports at the border and using enhanced licences as alternatives.

It’s the strongest effort yet by legislators to impose a 17-month delay on the administration’s plan to implement the passport requirement at land and sea entry points in January 2008.

It’s also the first time legislators have hit Homeland Security in the budget.

And it’s a clear sign that politicians are fed up with a huge backlog in passport applications since the rule for air travellers went into effect Jan. 23, prompting frustrated Americans to flood their constituency offices with complaints.

“This is an important victory for cross-border trade and tourism,” said Len Crispino, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. “Delays at our border are already costing our economies billions of dollars and threatening tens of thousands of jobs.”

New York Democrat Louise Slaughter, long a vocal critic of the passport plan, said legislators no longer trust President George W. Bush’s administration to get it right.

“We must never sacrifice our relationship with Canada in a misguided attempt to increase border security,” she said. “I have long said that economic security and physical security are not mutually exclusive. We can and must have both.”

The House measure is part of a massive US$37 billion Homeland Security spending bill. A similar provision is making its way through the Senate.

Any final legislation must survive a veto threat from Bush, who is not happy with other aspects of the spending bills.

Congress gave administration officials the option last year of waiting 17 months before requiring passports at land and sea crossings, instead of going ahead in January 2008 as planned.

But Homeland officials, saying they don’t need the extra time, are pressing ahead.

Now legislators want to mandate the delay – and withhold budget funds to press their case.

With Americans waiting up to three months before getting their passports, administration officials were forced last week to give flyers a break until the end of September.

Government estimates say the second phase of the passport rule requiring the document at land and sea crossings could quadruple the number of passport applications to 27 million from about six million.

“Nobody can say with the straight face that the federal government is ready for this,” said Republican Steven LaTourette of Ohio

Said Slaughter: “You can’t deny what we’ve done here. But they’ll try.”

This week, two senators urged the administration to acknowledge it needs more time before it can put in place the entire security plan passed by Congress in 2004 in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Ted Stevens said public statements about sticking to the looming January deadline are adding to the mountain of passport applications.

On Thursday, the Senate appropriations committee passed a measure imposing the 17-month delay. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

“The administration is walking blithely toward a cliff with this program, and they’re threatening to take millions of Americans with them,” said Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont.

“Their competence in being able to get this right was already in question, and when they keep insisting they’ll be ready in six months, so is their judgment.”

Legislators say Homeland Security shouldn’t get all of the $250 million it plans to spend on implementing the passport rule until they figure out if enhanced driver’s licences containing proof of citizenship could be used instead.

A pilot project to investigate that possibility is slated to start in a few months at crossings between British Columbia and Washington state.

Politicians also want full testing of so-called passcards – a planned alternative for Americans that are cheaper than passports – as well as an extensive cost-benefit analysis of the entire security plan.

New York Representative Thomas Reynolds, a Republican, has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate why the passport backlog occurred and study the impact of the second phase.

Air travellers entering the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda have officially needed a passport since the January implementation.

But Canadian flyers without passports actually haven’t been prevented from travelling, and that flexibility will continue.

Last week, officials said they have plans for a “phased implementation” at land and sea crossings. But they wouldn’t say whether that means flexibility for a certain period of time for those without the documents.

Details are supposed to be announced later this month.

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