States to get more time on driver's licenses records

By Beverley Lumpkin
Associated Press writer

WASHINGTON Bowing to the demands of the nation's governors and Congress, the Bush administration agreed Thursday to grant states an extra year and a half to comply with new driver's license standards.

The move cleared one obstacle to a huge homeland security bill. But more problems threatened the Senate legislation, chiefly whether to allow airport screeners to unionize.

For now, the announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff satisfied the Republican senators who had threatened to use the bill to force the administration's hand. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who led the effort to get the states more time, said the deal was the product of ''some rather spirited negotiations.''

''The department has finally recognized that it simply was unfair to impose this burden on the states,'' Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said on the Senate floor.

Under the deal, states that request an extension would be given one through Dec. 31, 2009, Collins and the agency said. Two years ago, Congress set a deadline for states to comply with the uniform standards by May 2008.

The deal also would allow states to use as much as 20 percent of their Homeland Security grants to comply with the new standards.

But for all of the progress, a more difficult obstacle stood in the way of passing the sweeping legislation to tighten the nation's security.

The Bush administration remained staunchly opposed to a provision in both the House and Senate versions of the bill that would grant to homeland security workers the same collective bargaining and whistleblower rights enjoyed by most other federal employees.

The White House on Wednesday threatened to veto the massive bill over that one provision, because officials said that it would interfere with the kind of instant personnel decisions necessitated by an emergency situation. Enough Republicans have pledged to support the veto threat to sustain it, and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is expected to introduce an amendment to strip that provision out of the bill.

''It is not in the interest of national security to offer collective bargaining rights in this instance,'' Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said Thursday on the Senate floor.

Labor advocates call that a poor disguise for what they say is the real reason Republicans consider the provision a deal-killer: the party's longtime political opposition to labor rights.

A similar fight had been shaping up over looming federal regulations on driver's license standards until Chertoff told reporters on Wednesday that the new rules he would announce Thursday would ''comfort anxieties'' of states that said the rules would be too expensive for them.

Governors, state legislators and members of Congress have railed against the new requirements. In January the Maine legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution objecting to the law, and about a dozen other states also have balked at complying with it. Several are expected to pass laws or adopt resolutions declining to participate.

Chertoff promised flexibility but added, ''There's got to be a disciplined approach to getting in compliance with the law and the extension has to be a reasonable length of time. It's not going to be an extension that takes you years into the future.''

State officials have complained about the license requirements, which were in the 2005 REAL-ID Act, saying Congress didn't give them the money to convert their databases or enough time to develop driver's licenses that critics complain amount to a national ID card and could promote identity theft.

The law, passed in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, requires all states to bring their driver's licenses under a national standard and to link their record-keeping systems.

''There's vividly in my mind a picture of the Florida driver's license Mohammed Atta carried that he used to get on an airplane to drive it into the World Trade Center,'' Chertoff said. ''Shame on us if we don't do something to get a handle on what is the principal form of identification used in this country.''

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