President Bush on Thursday told the nation's newspaper editors he wants a review of the State Department's new policy requiring persons crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders to show passports as of 2008.
The president's announcement at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors came as dozens of members of Congress and U.S. senators prepared a formal protest of the policy, saying it would ruin border trade and tourism.
Among the 50 signers of a letter from the House were Reps. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo.
Bush indicated that neither Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, nor Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff cleared the mandate with him personally before they announced it on April 5. Members of Congress also said then that it took them by surprise.
"When I first read that in the newspaper about the need to have passports, particularly the day crossings that take place, about a million for instance in the state of Texas, I said, 'What's going on here?' " Bush said when asked about the new rules.
Many newspapers, including The Buffalo News, carried the story on their front pages.
"I thought there was a better way to expedite the legal flow of traffic and people," Bush said.
"If people have to have a passport, it's going to disrupt the honest flow of traffic. I think there's some flexibility in the law, and that's what we're checking out right now," he said.
"On the larger scale, we've got a lot to do to enforce the border," he said, according to an Associated Press account of his remarks at the ASNE meeting.
"This is great news," said Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Even before the president spoke, representatives of the Senate and House representing the Buffalo Niagara region predicted the passport policy was going to be changed.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he is "glad the president is giving this a second look." Any plan, he said, "must demonstrate how the border works in Western New York, where people cross it daily for work, shopping and sporting events."
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, who urged the White House to review the order when it was announced, on Thursday said the local economy depends on "as free a flow as possible over our northern borders."
The State Department, where the passport order originated, reacted defensively.
Rice spokesman Tom Casey said "if the president has asked the secretary (Rice) for a review, she will, in fact, do it."
"The decision on this is based on the need to implement legislation that's been (passed) by Congress."
But former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, said the intelligence reorganization law passed by Congress last year does not mandate that persons crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders obtain passports. It requires persons wishing to make the crossing to obtain passports or "other acceptable" documents.
LaFalce said the provision was included in the law at the request of the 9/1 1 Commission, but was "buried deep" in the code.
The spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, Christiana Halsey, praised the president's decision. Halsey maintained the public misunderstood the initiative from the beginning.
She said Rice's April 5 announcement was merely a "preliminary announcement of a proposed rule" -- the first of a multiphased process to give the passport mandate legal teeth.
This was done, she said, to prompt feedback from individuals, businesses and agencies. When asked if the response was positive, she laughed.
After an indeterminate period, she said, the government will publish "an advance notice of a proposed rule" providing for a 60-day comment period. That will allow the administration to get feedback and refine the plan.
Then, she said, the government will finally publish a proposed rule enforcing whatever identification mandates it decides on, and allow more time for comment, either 30, 60 or 90 days.
After that, it will publish a rule on ID requirements that will have the force of law.
The plan caused a stir in Canada, where the government announced it might reciprocate against the United States. Nearly 16 million Canadians entered the United States last year.
Canada's public safety minister, Anne McLellan, told reporters in Ottawa that Bush's comments signal his support for negotiations between the two counties about "accepted forms of ID."
Washington Bureau Assistant Patti Truant and The Associated Press contributed to this report.