The Bush administration on Friday suspended some of its new, post-Sept. 11 requirements for traveling abroad, hoping to placate Congress and irate summer travelers whose vacations have been thwarted by delays in processing their passports.
This is a temporary fix, good through September as the State Department deals with what's described as a record-breaking demand for passports, reports CBS News correspondent Peter Maer.
The proposal would temporarily lift a requirement that U.S. passports be used for citizens flying to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Instead, they'll have to show border agents two things: A State Department receipt for a passport application and another government identification, such as a driver's license.
Those without passports would receive additional security scrutiny, which could include extra questioning or bag checks.
"If they did convince us that we needed to have passports due to security and now they're telling us that they're going to relax it, I guess we're going to be saying that we are giving up some security for passenger convenience," Terry Trippler of Cheapseats.com said on CBS News' The Early Show Friday.
The suspension should allow the State Department to catch up with a massive surge in applications that has overwhelmed passport processing centers since the rule took effect this year. The resulting backlog has caused up to three-month delays for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of Americans.
"It's taking much longer than the government told us it would to get a passport," Trippler told co-anchor Hannah Storm.
Speaking with CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson, a senior State Department official acknowledged the problem.
"We didn't need Congress to tell us there was a problem because we were getting calls from concerned, scared or just plain pissed off American citizens," said the official. The chief complaint was that people had followed instructions and still had not received their passports in the time frame indicated by the State Department.
The change would help those like Judy and Darrell Green, of Rifle, Colo., who are still waiting to hear whether their son-in-law's passport will arrive in time for a a family vacation to Mexico to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary and Darrell's 60th birthday.
Darrell Green's passport arrived Thursday, only after Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., helped expedite it. Their son-in-law expects to get his Friday with the help of his congresswoman.
"It makes you feel kind of frantic because you've spent all that money," Judy Green said.
Homeland Security signed off on the proposal Thursday after consultations with the State Department, the White House and members of Congress, who have been deluged with calls from angry constituents seeking help with their passports.
Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., whose district lies near the Canadian border, said White House officials had been on Capitol Hill trying to work out a compromise amid what he called a "turf war" between State and Homeland Security.
Reynolds faulted "arrogant" officials for failing to get the system working properly, and said he was worried about even more headaches next year when passports will be required to drive into Canada or Mexico.
Lawmakers had been pushing for a change for weeks.
"To say people must have a passport to travel and not give people a passport is right up there in the stupid column," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who urged the State Department to lift the rule last month.
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, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Between March and May, the department issued more than 4.5 million passports. It has millions more to process, according to consular affairs officials.
Wilson's office took more than 500 calls from frustrated travelers seeking help in May alone. The problem has since spread from border states to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Colorado and elsewhere.
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