Sensenbrenner Balks At Passport Security Delay

A key House Republican is saying no to the Bush administration's request to give 27 countries two more years to develop passports with biometric technology (search), proposing a one-year extension instead.

The countries are those whose citizens are allowed to enter the United States without visas. They are required to have the biometric technology in their passports by October, but many of them have said they won't meet that deadline.

The technology enables officials to match a person's unique characteristics with the digital image in the passports or travel documents.

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) said in a March that without an extension, millions of new visas would have to be issued, overwhelming U.S. consular offices in the affected countries.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday that one year is enough.

"A one-year extension provides the ... countries sufficient time to meet this deadline while reinforcing the commitment of the Congress and the Bush administration to improving the security aspects of the visa waiver program," Sensenbrenner said in a statement.

Congress in 2002 voted to require the biometric passports (search) following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington and set a 2003 deadline. At the administration's request, lawmakers agreed last year to extend the deadline a year.

Administration officials said Friday they will continue to press for a two-year extension.

"We do not think one year would be adequate time. A two-year extension was requested based on a good faith effort of countries and technical difficulties of meeting the deadline," said Stuart Patt, the State Department's consular affairs spokesman.

Patt said technical standards still are being developed for the passports and machines that can read them. The United States isn't likely to produce passports with biometric technology until the end of 2005, he said

Sensenbrenner's bill for a one-year extension could get a vote in early June. It's co-sponsored by chairmen and ranking Democrats of the House International Relations and Select Homeland Security committees and the Immigration, Border Security and Claims subcommittee.

The U.S. tourism industry had worried that without the extension, potential tourists — particularly from Great Britain, Germany and other European countries — will travel elsewhere.

The visa waiver program is reciprocal and is made up of countries that the State Department feels have sufficient security measures in place for their passports. In exchange, U.S. citizens can travel to participating countries without visas.

The 27 visa waiver countries are 22 European nations plus Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore.