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REVERSE ON PASSPORT RULE GIVES BUSH WIGGLE ROOM

President Bush was worried about more than travelers being inconvenienced when he beat a retreat on his own administration's plan to make everybody get passports if they want to go to Canada and Mexico.

Yes, the millions driving back and forth across the Mexican and Canadian borders would be burdened, and there would be serious impacts on business, as Bush told newspaper editors last week in a kind of, "Who, Me?" performance.

But the timing of the original edict -- which would have taken effect at the beginning of the 2008 presidential election year -- would have posed dangers to a Republican ticket, maybe headed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Not only would border communities in Democratic California and New York State be in turmoil, but their counterparts in Republican or swing states like Texas, Washington and Michigan, as well.

The edict, now in limbo, would force families to send hundreds of dollars in fees to the government to get these passports, which would be seen as federal taxes on the middle class, and endure months of waiting and bureaucratic guff.

Bush sure didn't order a review of the mandate to please Canada, whose citizens would, for the first time, be routinely required to show passports to get into the United States. The White House considers Canada a pacifist socialist state. Mexican legals now have to show paperwork to get in.

And Bush wasn't troubled by the glaring contradiction of his government's announcing passports for northern border crossings the same day, April 5, his White House spokesman denounced the Minutemen watching for illegals entering Arizona. The White House labeled these men, equipped only with binoculars and cell phones, "vigilantes."

This was about taking a political issue damaging to Republicans in 2008 off the table. It may explain why Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who expects to run for president in 2008, was so seemingly calm about a federal policy that would have such obvious and disastrous effects on the struggling economies of the Buffalo Niagara region and Northern New York.

Making workaday New Yorkers get passports is an issue rich with possibilities for next year's senatorial race. But it is even yeastier if left in the oven for 2008.

While Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, were properly warning about the wreckage the passport policy would visit on border towns, Clinton said merely that the federal government should spend more money so that the new policy could be implemented more smoothly.

Slaughter in fact took the lead in Congress in immediately demanding the passport plan be scrapped outright, even as her Democratic colleagues hung back fearing that if they complained they could be branded as "soft on terrorism." The volatility of this potential charge, not unlike "soft on Communism" of 55 years ago, may have prompted even Democratic Sen. Carl Levin to refrain from commenting on an issue that could unravel the economy of Southeastern Michigan.

It took the Democrats a full week to figure out that the passport orders had golden possibilities for their own election campaigns next year. They belatedly circulated an erudite letter of complaint to the Bush administration.

Bush headed off the storm by calling for a review, giving his lieutenants some wiggle room to get down from the limb they had climbed on.

Amtrak, which the White House had lined up for a firing squad, got some light at the end of its tunnel in a bipartisan leadership Transportation Committee bill providing it $2 billion for the next three years. Amtrak's fight for survival isn't over, but at least now there will be a fight.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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