The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Friday to delay for 17 months new rules requiring passports for U.S. land and sea travelers entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
The State Department has been flooded with passport 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 Americans.
In response, the government last week already temporarily waived a passport requirement for air travel, provided people can demonstrate they have applied for a passport.
But the Homeland Security Department is still pressing ahead to require passports of everyone driving across the border into Canada or Mexico beginning in January 2008; a rule that some experts believe will lead to a fourfold increase in demand for new passports.
The 379-45 House vote Friday matches a provision included in the Senate's version of a homeland security spending measure, approved by the Appropriations Committee Thursday.
"Nobody can say with the straight face that the federal government is ready for this," said Steve LaTourette, a Republican "My amendment simply asks the DHS to slow down and get it right this time."
The passport 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 of help from infuriated constituents who cannot get their passports even though they applied for them 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 advantage of the leniency. Now, increasingly frustrated lawmakers want to mandate the 17-month 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. Pat Leahy, a Democrat. "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."
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 January and 1.7 million in February.