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House OKs passport requirement delay

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The House voted yesterday to delay the passport requirement for Americans returning by land or sea from Canada and Mexico by 17 months, following last week's admission that the State Department was overwhelmed by demand for passports..

Under the provision, Americans returning by land or sea from Mexico and Canada wouldn't need a passport until June 1, 2009. Congress previously had phase two of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative going into effect in January 2008.

The first phase required Americans to have passports if flying into the United States from other North American and Caribbean countries as of January 2007. Last week, the State Department relaxed that requirement through September in response to extraordinary demand that pushed the wait for a passport from six to 12 weeks and beyond.

"Nobody can say with a straight face that the federal government is ready for this," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, the Ohio Republican who introduced the amendment to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending bill. "My amendment simply asks the DHS to slow down and get it right this time."

The Travel Industry Association, a Washington trade group, said it was not pushing for the extension but is in favor of giving the State and Homeland Security departments enough time to improve the system.

"This is Congress responding from the pressure of their constituents," said Rick Webster, vice president of government affairs at the association. "The best lobbyists took over and moved members in this direction."

A similar amendment was added in the Senate by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican.

"The [Bush] administration is walking blithely toward a cliff with this program, and they"re threatening to take millions of Americans with them," Mr. Leahy said. "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."

President Bush has said he would veto any Homeland Security appropriations bill over $35.3 billion, putting the passport extension in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the travel industry yesterday urged Congress to require travelers who don't need a visa to visit the United States to pay a $10 fee to visit the country.

Half of the fee, which is common in other countries, would be used for national security and easing the customs process, such as hiring more customs officers. The other half would be spent on a campaign to promote traveling to the United States from other countries. The United States is one of the few developed countries without a national campaign.

Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and the first Homeland Security secretary, backed the proposal by the Discover America Partnership, a tourism lobbying group.

"America needs to be more connected," he said. The country's long-term interest "is best served by enhancing and promoting more travel into the United States, not less."

The fee likely would be collected by the DHS in the visitor's home country and would collectively raise about $200 million, according to an economic impact study the partnership released yesterday.

The tourism campaign would increase overseas travel to the United States by nearly 1.6 million new visitors per year, according to the study, reversing a decline in overseas travel to the U.S. since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The travel industry has been lobbying that if the United States isn't more welcoming to foreign visitors, the world's opinion of the country and overseas travel to the United States would continue to tumble.

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