Fri Feb 2, 7:57 PM

By Beth Gorham
WASHINGTON (CP) - A top U.S. legislator wants to force officials to fully consider allowing Canadians and Americans to use driver's licences in lieu of passports to cross the border and exempt everyone under 17 from the new security rule.
Draft legislation obtained by The Canadian Press commits the U.S. to a pilot project with licences. It also ensures officials use the extra time Congress gave them, until June 1, 2009, to review the passport rule and ensure it won't cause havoc at land and sea crossings.
The bill, proposed by New York Democrat Louise Slaughter who chairs the powerful rules committee in the House of Representatives, will be introduced as early as next week with Republican backers.
Slaughter, whose district includes Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y., has long backed Canada's concern the so-called Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) will seriously harm tourism and trade.
"It is critical that Congress push the Department of Homeland Security to fix WHTI and do so in a timely manner," said Slaughter, who's been circulating her bill among legislators to build bipartisan support.
"Unfortunately, the administration continues to pursue a plan that will be economically disastrous for both the United States and Canada."
Canadians already need a passport to fly into the United States, a security measure passed by Congress in light of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
And they were supposed to produce one at land and sea crossings by Jan. 1, 2008, until Congress extended the deadline last year.
But many U.S. legislators from both parties are still miffed, saying officials are determined to proceed as originally planned without properly considering alternatives and adverse effects on trade and tourism.
Canada has long advocated for more time to implement the rule and consider enhanced driver's licences that contain citizenship information. They'd likely cost less than passports and most people need to get them anyway.
Only 40 per cent of Canadians and some 27 per cent of Americans have passports.
Slaughter's bill, which has broad industry support, would force the State and Homeland Security departments to evaluate the pilot project, report back to Congress and submit it to the Government Accountability Office for an audit.
It also forces U.S. officials to do a sweeping analysis of the costs and benefits of requiring passports and their plan to introduce an alternative high-technology ID card for Americans.
The card, dubbed passport lite, would have to cost no more than US$20 and be available within 10 days after someone applies.
Canadian and American citizens under 17 years old would be exempt from the passport rule, an idea that's gained so much traction that sources say it will likely be announced by officials as a done deal in the coming weeks.
Older Americans without the proper ID would get a break for six months after the deadline goes into effect.
"She has created a good blueprint for how to make this work and I think it's got a very good chance," said Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council.
"It's the mechanism by which we avert a train wreck. It prevents the Homeland Security Department from rushing to an early implementation of a program before it does its homework."
The passport issue has long been near the top of Canada's bilateral agenda, although some on Capitol Hill privately grumble Canadians have been so fixated on delaying the measure they've yet to offer a viable alternative.
Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. warns it could seriously impair the economy and casual cross-border visits that mark relations between the two countries.
The Conference Board of Canada estimates Canada could lose 14 million American visitors and C$3.6 billion in tourism revenues over five years.
Four premiers, from Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick, will be in Washington later this month to push Canada's case on passports at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"We shouldn't be sacrificing our economy on the alter of homeland security," the chamber's Angelo Amador said Friday. "We can have both."
Allowing driver's licences into the mix "has been our number one suggestion all along."
But U.S. officials keep talking about the original deadline, he said.
"That's the biggest problem. We want this to be as seamless as possible."
Homeland Security gave the nod this week for the first phase of a project at five primary locations straddling southern British Columbia and northwest Washington state.
Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the plan is to read bar codes on the back of existing driver's licences with hand scanners to check people against criminal databases and security watch lists.
All Canadian driver's licences already have the bar codes except in Manitoba, he said.
Other states are interested in test projects.
The issue will get an airing on Capitol Hill, likely in March, before the House homeland security committee.
Slaughter's bill also insists on more co-operation with Canada, a major advertising campaign when details are finalized and regular reports to Congress.
Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, who pushed for the 17-month delay last year, said recently the passport rule the way it stands is still "crazy."
"We can find a better way to do this," said Leahy. "We can find something that's not an economic burden on either of our countries.
"Obviously there's some legislative steps to take. What would be a lot better is if our two countries could sit down and actually seriously talk about something that would make sense, not something that would be symbolic."

Copyright 2007 Canadian Press