WASHINGTON—A nationalized system for driver's licenses that was to take effect next year already had been postponed because of a backlash from Congress and several states, and the Senate began hearings Tuesday to consider repealing it altogether.
The Real ID Act was pitched as a homeland-security enhancement, added to a spending bill and passed by the Republican-led Congress in 2005.
To board commercial airlines or enter federal buildings, Americans would need to obtain new identification cards with beefed-up requirements to prove their legal status and verify their Social Security numbers, addresses and other information. States were to be ready by this time next year.
But the law is under assault from a coalition of liberal Democrats, privacy-conscious Republicans and libertarians, immigrants-rights advocates and state legislatures.
Two states have passed binding legislation to opt out: Montana and Washington. Six have passed resolutions opposing the law: Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine and North Dakota. Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Oklahoma are poised to follow. Similar legislation has been introduced this year in another 20 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Critics argue that it's a $23 billion unfunded mandate that would link states' databases to create a centrally accessible system through which the federal government could monitor citizens. Some argue that its real appeal was to those who want to deny driver's licenses to undocumented workers.
The critics also say it wouldn't stop terrorists from obtaining IDs any better than current state programs and that a more centralized system could make citizens more susceptible to identity theft.
Supporters say the more stringent requirements are a necessity in the post-Sept. 11 world, that uniform standards could help law enforcement and that the critics are being paranoid about the federal government's desire or ability to spy on ordinary Americans.
With Democrats now in control of Congress, the debate over undoing provisions of the law is serving to some degree as a proxy for dissatisfaction with what critics see as overreaching provisions of the administration's USA Patriot Act—which expanded law enforcement powers—and domestic-eavesdropping programs.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., held a hearing Tuesday to gather input from supporters and critics, but made it clear where he stands. "The days of Congress rubber-stamping any and every idea cooked up by this administration are over," Leahy said. He's signed on to legislation by Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, John Sununu, R-N.H., and freshman Jon Tester, D-Mont., to repeal the driver's license provisions.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, "It is important to be able to identify people to know who is doing what."
But Specter said he had concerns about the financial burden that the program would impose on states, as well as about privacy rights and whether Amish and Mennonites in his state who don't want to be photographed would be accommodated. "We're wrestling with a tough issue," he said.
Under pressure from a Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the Department of Homeland Security agreed in March to postpone implementing the law through the end of 2009 to give states more time to comply.
Some lawmakers say that should be enough time to address concerns about privacy, cost and bureaucracy. "The identification of employees, workers and people traveling on our airplanes and other things for which reliable identification is required is too important to talk about repealing," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"We should look at it, and if there are problems, work on it," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "My state of Alabama is happy with it. They intend to comply with it. I don't see how Big Brother has a lot to do with states having confidence that the person they give a driver's license to is actually that person."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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