Senate rejects extra $300 million for Real ID

Opponents of new identification card requirements say move further signals contentious Bush administration-backed plan is "dead in the water."

Action by a divided U.S. Senate on Thursday raises new questions about the fate of a contentious plan to outfit Americans with new digital identification cards by 2013.

By a 50-44 vote mostly along party lines, the chamber set aside a Republican-backed amendment to a homeland security spending bill that would have spread $300 million across the states to help them implement the so-called Real ID Act.

The Senate also agreed unanimously to adopt an amendment, proposed by vocal Real ID critic Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which prohibits the use of any of the spending bill's funding for "planning, testing, piloting, or developing a national identification card."

The votes leave just $50 million in additional Real ID grants for states in the the final bill, which passed by an 89-4 vote late Thursday and is now headed to the president's desk. President Bush has previously vowed to veto the entire measure, but it was not immediately clear whether that was still the case.

The remaining grant figure appears unlikely to satisfy state officials, many of whom have blasted Real ID as an "unfunded mandate." The Department of Homeland Security projects the cost of Real ID for states and taxpayers over the next 10 years at more than $23 billion. Seventeen states have already enacted statutes or resolutions registering their opposition to the new requirements, according to the American Civil Liberties Union's RealNightmare.org. (Not all states, however, feel that way.)

The Real ID Act, which was enacted in 2005 after being glued to an emergency war spending bill, is designed to carry out a proposal suggested by the 9/11 Commission, which reported that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had fraudulently obtained state driver's licenses. But critics argue the plan is misguided, insufficiently privacy-protective and prohibitively expensive.

The law dictates that, starting on May 11, 2008, Americans will need a federally approved, "machine readable" ID card to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments or take advantage of nearly any government service. Before issuing the cards, which would have to adhere to Homeland Security standards, states would be required to verify electronically that identification documents, such as birth certificates, presented by their citizens are authentic. (States that agree in advance to abide by the rules would be given until 2013 to comply.)

In remarks on the Senate floor earlier this week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the failed amendment's sponsors, said he offered up the funding increase because "if the Congress requires the states to adopt REAL ID or something similar to REAL ID, then the Congress ought to pay for it."

But even he voiced doubts about the structure of the mandate and said he would be working with his colleagues to revisit the requirements. "I think insofar as REAL ID goes," he went on, according to a written transcript of his remarks, "we should either fund it or we should repeal it."

Critics--including the American Civil Liberties Union, the free-market Cato Institute and Citizens Against Government Waste--had likened Alexander's proposal to "sucker money," arguing it would do little to help states with the estimated multibillion-dollar implementation costs.

Thursday's vote indicated "Real ID is dead in the water, and it is clear that no amount of money can save it," ACLU Legislative Counsel Tim Sparapani said in a statement. "The only solution to Real ID is to scrap and replace it, and Congress has caught on."

It wasn't the first time that senators have used pivotal bills in recent months to rebel against the new requirements.

Civil liberties advocates and Senate opponents of Real ID credited the death of a contentious immigration bill late last month to disagreements over proposals to broaden required uses of the digital id cards. The debate included an unsuccessful attempt to kill off an amendment that would have barred employers from compelling new hires to present Real ID-compliant documents.

Politicians in both chambers have also proposed bills this year that would repeal the original Real ID Act and replace it with what civil liberties groups view as more flexible, privacy-protecting requirements.

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