By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; A03
The Obama administration will abandon a Dec. 31 deadline for states to tighten security requirements for driver's licenses, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Friday.
Delaying the requirement, which faces opposition from governors and Senate Republicans over how it should be implemented, jeopardizes an immigration and security measure adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But it also removes concerns that tens of thousands of holiday travelers could have been subjected to heightened airport security checks if they lacked the new licenses.
Under a controversial 2005 domestic security program passed by Congress and known as Real ID, states were required to issue more secure licenses by the end of 2009. Those would be the only licenses accepted by federal officials for such purposes as boarding commercial aircraft. Instead, states now have until May 11, 2011, to comply with Real ID, Napolitano said.
"In order to ensure that the millions of Americans traveling this holiday season are not disrupted, DHS is extending the Dec. 31 REAL ID material compliance deadline," Napolitano said in a written statement.
States have balked at what governors called an unfunded, $4 billion federal mandate by Congress, and what civil liberties groups criticized as a de facto national ID.
After opponents fought the Bush administration to a standstill, Obama security officials and governors jointly asked Congress last spring to replace Real ID with a new program called Pass ID, which would cost half as much, be less stringent and come with federal grants.
That plan would give states five years to include in their IDs a digital photograph and machine-readable features such as a bar code. It would also require states to verify applicants' identities and legal status by checking federal immigration, Social Security and State Department databases and original birth certificate records.
It would add stronger privacy controls than contained in the Real ID program and drop a demand for new databases.
Supporters hoped the year-end deadline would push Congress to approve Pass ID. But opponents refused to yield, with some Republicans accusing the administration of gutting the earlier plan and backsliding on security. Privacy groups continue to fight what they have called a "Real ID-lite."
"Any attempt to implement PASS ID will harm national security," Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) wrote in a Dec. 14 letter to several colleagues.
"Key senators have called DHS's bluff, and the agency has once again blinked," American Civil Liberties Union officials wrote in a blog recently, noting that under Bush, DHS extended a previous deadline of May 2008 in the face of similar opposition.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that until heath-care legislation is passed, he could not spare the time to overcome procedural blocks that several Senate Republicans had anonymously placed on the ID measure. With Congress set to leave soon for its winter break, Napolitano and governors retreated, leaving the future of the changes in doubt.
On Thursday, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont, chairman of the National Governors Association, and Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, vice chairman, asked Napolitano to waive the deadline. DHS said 46 states are not in compliance with the requirements, and 13 have passed laws refusing to participate. "Our citizens should not be punished for the failings of Real ID and the inability of Congress to act," the governors wrote.
Roger Dow, head of the U.S. Travel Association, an industry trade group, said its members were pleased that the government did not allow the battle to tie up "the way the economy moves or how Americans travel," by potentially forcing residents of the 46 states to go through added airport screening.
Napolitano urged Congress "to address systemic problems with the REAL ID Act to advance our security interests over the long term." She said her agency was "committed to moving forward to implement this key 9/11 Commission recommendation."
The commission recommended tougher federal standards for driver's licenses and birth certificates. Eighteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers obtained state IDs, some of them fraudulently, easing their movements inside the country.
Lobbyists said that some GOP lawmakers may be delaying action on the ID security measure because they oppose the Obama administration's upcoming push for an immigration overhaul, and want to combine the issues. Analysts said that combining the two measures could complicate prospects for both. That was the case in 2007, the last time the Senate tried and failed to approve an immigration overhaul.