The Bush administration hit the brakes Friday on a controversial law requiring Americans to carry tamper-proof driver's licenses, delaying its final implementation by five years, until 2017.
A number of states have balked at the law, objecting to it largely over cost and privacy concerns. But under the administration's new edict, states that continue to fight compliance with the law face a penalty: Their residents will be forbidden from using driver's licenses to board airplanes or enter federal buildings as of May 11 of this year.
Congress passed the Real ID law in 2005 to address security flaws spotlighted by the 2001 terrorist attacks. But 17 states, including Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, have passed legislation calling for its repeal or opposing its implementation.
"Come May 2008, [their] citizens . . . will feel the consequences" of the states' resistance, Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said Friday. To board a plane or enter a federal building, those residents will have to use a passport or other form of accepted identification, he said.
California is well on its way to compliance, Knocke said.
States that are moving toward implementing the law can request a waiver from the May deadline, and their driver's licenses will remain valid for security purposes, the agency said.
Giving states more time to comply with the law will lower costs, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Civil liberties groups disagreed.
"DHS has kicked the can down the road to the next administration," said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. Steinhardt disputed that the delayed deadlines would have a major effect on the costs of complying with the law.
A basic problem with the law remains, he said: People will have difficulty obtaining the original documents, such as a birth certificate, that eventually will be required to obtain a Real ID license.
"It's going to be a real nightmare for American drivers," Steinhardt said.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the homeland security committee, praised the department for giving states more time but chided it for not addressing privacy concerns raised by the law's critics.
Real ID will require a linked system of databases so that motor vehicle authorities can share information with all other states.
The administration's changes will lower implementation costs to about $3.9 billion, from an original estimate of $14.6 billion, Chertoff said.
Other Homeland Security officials said as much as $360 million was available through the agency to help states pay for the costs.
But Jeremy Meadows, senior policy director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said most states considered the federal help inadequate. "Financing does remain a major issue," Meadows said.
Under the new regulations, by the end of 2009 states must check the legal status of a driver's license applicant with Homeland Security, ensure that the applicant has no licenses in other states and check the validity of the applicant's Social Security number.
By 2011, states must verify with the issuing source that all identification documents people use to obtain driver's licenses are valid.
By 2014, all license holders born on or after Dec. 1, 1964, will be required to carry a Real ID license.
By 2017, all license holders, regardless of age, will have to carry one.