WASHINGTON – Outrage over passport application delays is fueling a drive by Congress to postpone new rules requiring Americans to have the documents to re-enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
The State Department has been flooded with applications since new rules requiring passports for air travelers went into effect in January. The resulting backlog has caused delays of up to three months for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of people.
In response, the government last week temporarily waived a passport requirement for air travel, provided people can demonstrate they've applied.
But the Homeland Security Department is pressing ahead to require passports of everyone driving across the border into Canada or Mexico beginning in January 2008 -- a rule that could lead an even bigger increase in demand.
A 379-45 House vote Friday to delay the rules for 17 months matches a provision included in the Senate's version of a homeland security spending measure, approved by the Appropriations Committee Thursday.
The Bush administration opposes delaying the rules, but the big House vote suggests its opposition can be overcome.
"Nobody can say with a straight face that the federal government is ready for this," said Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. "My amendment simply asks the DHS to slow down and get it right this time."
The application surge is the result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that since January has required U.S. citizens to use passports when entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air. It is part of a broader package of immigration rules enacted after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Lawmakers have been besieged with pleas for help from constituents who can't get their passports even though they applied up to four months ago.
Last year, Congress gave the Homeland security and State departments additional time to get ready for the new passport rules, but they opted not to take advatage of the leniency. Now, increasingly frustrated lawmakers want to mandate the delay.
"The administration is walking blithely toward a cliff with this program, and they're threatening to take millions of Americans with them," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "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."
The surge in applications has doubled target turnaround times for passport applications from six to 10-12 weeks, and 500,000 applications have already taken longer.
Those numbers pale in comparison to what lies ahead.
According to government estimates, about 6 million Americans will need formal documents to travel to the Caribbean, Canada or Mexico by air or sea. The estimated need for land crossings is more than four times that: 27 million Americans over the next five years. Those numbers do not include the regular year-to-year demand for passports.
Last year, the State Department processed 12.1 million passports. This year, officials expect to process about 18 million. The department received 1 million applications in December, 1.8 million in January and 1.7 million in February.