At issue is a law known as Real ID that would require new security measures for state-issued driver's licenses. The Bush administration says the law, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, will hinder terrorists, con artists and illegal immigrants. Opponents say it will cost too much and weaken privacy protections.
Unless holdout states send a letter by the end of March seeking an extension, their residents no longer can use a driver's licenses as valid identification to board airplanes or enter federal buildings beginning in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has warned. They would have to present a passport or be subjected to secondary screening.
Only three states - Maine, Montana and South Carolina - have not sought extensions or already started moving toward compliance. New Hampshire has asked to be exempted, but Homeland Security Department officials have not found the state's letter to be legally acceptable.
But on Friday, the agency granted Montana an extension even though state officials did not ask for one and insist they will not follow the law. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Mont., told The Associated Press that administration officials "painted themselves in a corner."
Chertoff has offered to phase in requirements over about 10 years. But with President Bush leaving office in January, a decision to move ahead with Chertoff's plan will rest with the next administration.
By 2014, according to the plan, anyone seeking to board an airplane or enter a federal building would have to present a Real ID-compliant card, except people older than 50, officials said. That exception would give states more time to get everyone new licenses, and officials say the threat from someone in that age is much less. By 2017, even people over 50 must have a Real ID-compliant card to board a plane.
Last week, five senators appealed to Chertoff to exempt all 50 states from the approaching deadline. Chertoff, in letters sent to the lawmakers Friday, said Congress had set the date when the law went into effect in 2005 and "I cannot ignore it."
Yet hours after Chertoff sent them, Assistant Secretary Stewart Baker told Montana's attorney general that the government would grant the state an extension even though it explicitly was not seeking one. Baker said the state's new license security measures already met many Real ID requirements anyway.
"I can only provide the relief you are seeking by treating your letter as a request for an extension," Baker wrote.
Schweitzer said his state had not backed down.
The agency's approach to Montana could provide an easy way out for the remaining states resistant to Real ID. It also suggests the government does not want to go ahead with its plan to conduct extra screening on residents of certain states.
To Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, "this concession is proof positive that in the face of opposition from the states, DHS will blink every time. Congress needs to step in and replace Real ID with a plan that works."
Critics of the plan say that by linking a number of government databases, Real ID could make people's identities less secure; Chertoff has dismissed that claim. Some governors complain compliance will cost their states a small fortune.
To quell that criticism, the government has reduced the expected cost of putting the law into place from $14.6 billion to $3.9 billion.
Among other details of the Real ID plan:
-The traditional driver's license photograph would be taken at the beginning of the application instead of the end. If someone is rejected for failing to prove identity and citizenship, the applicant's photo would be kept on file and checked if that person tried again.
-The cards will have three layers of security measures, but will not contain microchips. States will be able to choose from a menu of security measures to put in their cards.
-After Social Security and immigration status checks become national practice, officials plan to move on to more expansive security checks. State motor vehicle offices would be required to verify birth certificates; check with other states to ensure an applicant does not have more than one license; and check with the State Department to verify applicants who use passports to get a driver's license.