WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration signaled Monday that it is withdrawing its plan to require passports for those motoring across the northern border by 2008.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the government is "seeking alternatives" to the passport edict announced by his department and the State Department on April 5.
The original announcement that passports would be required for land crossings drew strong protests from businesses and institutions that depend on casual travel.
For a family of four, passports would cost almost $300 and require months to obtain. Since at least the 1920s, all that has been needed to cross the border was a driver's license or a declaration of citizenship or residence.
Great Lakes bridge and tunnel operators said the passport mandate would virtually end spur-of-the-moment business and recreational trips between the United States and Canada.
Schumer, who met with Chertoff and agency aides at Grand Central Station, said Chertoff wanted the public to know that the change in course "was consistent with President Bush's wishes."
Bush on April 14 indicated the department's announcement surprised him and said he wanted the plan reviewed. An official notice containing the proposed rule was to have been published last week.
However, the rule, proposed by the Homeland Security and State departments, is still under review in the president's Office of Management and Budget.
There was no discussion, Schumer said, about withdrawing the passport edict for those traveling from the United States to the Caribbean as of 2006 or those flying between the United States and Canada and Mexico, as of 2007.
Spokesmen for Homeland Security on Monday confirmed they are "seeking alternatives" to passports but said that was their plan all along.
Homeland Security "is not declaring that a passport will be the sole means of identification" for land border crossings, said department spokesman Jarrod Agen. "Passports will still be accepted" by border security officials, he said.
Christiana Halsey, spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said passports "are always the preferred document," no matter how the review turns out.
The era of terrorism begun by the attack on the World Trade Center requires stronger means of identification than a driver's license, she said.
"There always needs to be a balance between security and facility," she said, "now that there is a need to better secure this country."
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who demanded weeks ago that the passport mandate be scrapped, said she is heartened at the government's change of course.
Sen. Hillary Rodman Clinton, D-N.Y., said she is "gratified" Chertoff acknowledged that the passport requirement "is not the ideal solution."