PASS card placed on hold in Senate

An initiative to require a passport or a new form of identification from all travelers from Mexico and Canada to the U.S., as well as U.S. citizens seeking re-entry, is being blocked by powerful senators on both sides of the aisle.

There has been a lack of coordination between the Homeland Security Department and the State Department in the effort to create the passport card (or PASS card) system, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said yesterday.

Calling the system “a train wreck on the horizon,” Mr. Leahy said, “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.”

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative to strengthen border security was to begin at the end of this year, but it will be postponed until June 1, 2009, under language attached yesterday to spending bills for the Homeland Security and State departments.

In addition to concerns about the PASS card technology, the burden of U.S. citizens’ traveling regularly to Mexico or Canada and the deluge of passport requests from U.S. citizens, the state of Alaska faces unique challenges.

“Alaska is the only state in the nation which cannot be accessed by land without passing through a foreign country,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“The amendment adopted today provides Alaskans and visitors to our state with the time they need to adapt to the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative,” said Mr. Stevens, who is sponsoring the measure with Mr. Leahy, ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs.

Under the current program design, U.S. citizens would need a passport if they drive to Alaska during the summer, because they must pass through Canada.

Additionally, PASS cards would be acceptable only for land travel. Because certain Alaskan cities are accessible only by ship or plane and all flights involving Alaskan airports are classified as “international,” Mr. Stevens’ amendment would require the PASS cards to be accepted as valid ID at seaports and airports.

The delay will give both departments time to resolve those problems and ensure travelers have enough time to get the new required documentation or passport.

The Leahy-Stevens amendment to the spending bills requires that certain standards be met before the program is implemented, language they and other senators also tucked in the immigration bill.

“Now that the immigration bill is a question mark, Senator Leahy and Senator Stevens looked for must-pass legislation to put the language in so that it will be enacted if the immigration bill becomes mired down,” said David Carle, Mr. Leahy’s spokesman.

The agencies are split on what technology to use. A “fast card,” such as those used by commuters to pass toll booths, is favored by Homeland Security Department officials, but State Department officials worry that it would not identify who is using the card or how many people are in the vehicle.

The new requirements for travel documents also will apply to travelers from the Caribbean and Bermuda. U.S. citizens also would need passports to re-enter the country from those destinations.

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