White House To Ease Passport Rules

(CBS/AP) Under fire from stressed travelers and steamed lawmakers, the Bush administration pledged on Tuesday to be "very flexible" in eliminating the current passport backlog and enforcing new passport rules next January.

Senators peppered Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, about the delays in processing passports, a situation that postponed or ruined the travel plans of thousands of Americans. The delays were due largely to a post-Sept. 11 security change that, for the first time, requires U.S. citizens to present a passport when flying to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean.

The State Department had anticipated the new rules would cause a surge in passport applications. It hired hundreds of extra workers to process them and even opened extra call centers. But it wasn't enough, reports CBS News Correspondent Nancy Cordes. Passport turnaround times slipped from six weeks to 12 weeks and longer.

Sen. James Webb, D-Va., questioned how the departments of State and Homeland Security plan to cope with an even greater demand for passports in January, when the Bush administration plans to require them for land and sea crossings to those neighboring countries as well.

Harty took blame for the current backlog and said the government's soon-to-be-announced plan for land and sea crossings "will be very flexible." She did not specify whether the flexibility would come with regard to the January date or through border crossing procedures.

Until September, Americans flying to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean must show proof that they have applied for a passport, reports Cordes. Americans driving or cruising to those countries don't need a passport until June of 2009.

The administration has insisted, as recently as last week, that it would go ahead with the January passport requirement despite the risk of more backlogs.

Senators remained skeptical.

"We want to know who's accountable and why this mess has happened," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing.

"This cannot be allowed to happen again," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Harty said the delay came from "a miscalculation on the size of the surge" in passport demand. She partly blamed Hurricane Katrina, which reduced the capacity of the passport office in New Orleans.

"I take responsibility for it," Harty said.