Congress Mulls Tougher Restrictions on Driver's Licenses

Alex Chadwick talks to NPR's Brian Naylor about a measure being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives that would strengthen restrictions for issuing driver's licenses nationwide. The so-called "real ID" issue has gained momentum amid a reinvigorated nationwide push to halt illegal immigration.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, Madeleine Brand on what President Bush's Social Security proposals would actually mean for you.

First, the lead: Congress in the driver's seat on driver's licenses. In Washington this week, senators and members of the House are working on an agreement to require that before anyone gets a license to drive in any state in this country that they first prove that they are here legally, a citizen or a legal resident. Joining us now to talk about this issue is NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

Brian, welcome back to the show, and give us a little background on this dispute. This comes out of the 9-11 Commission's report last year on its investigation, yes?

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Hi, Alex.

That's right. The report found that a number of those involved in the 9/11 plot were here in the country with expired visas, and some of them had obtained valid US driver's licenses. And one of the groups that's supporting this what's called Real ID Act has a blown-up placard of Mohamed Atta's Florida driver's license that it posts at every news conference. And so the backers say what they're doing is simply implementing one of the recommendations that driver's license requirements be tightened up to make sure that people here illegally can't obtain them.

CHADWICK: But this proposal, it didn't actually make it into the law that was passed late last year in response to the report from the 9-11 Commission.

NAYLOR: Correct. One of the reasons was because senators objected. This provision is the brainchild of James Sensenbrenner, who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a Republican from Wisconsin. And he tried to insert it in that bill that implemented some of those recommendations. The Senate said, `Well, wait a minute, you know. We haven't had any hearings on this, we haven't really talked about how this would all play out.'

In the end, Sensenbrenner was forced to withdraw that provision with the promise from leadership in Congress that he would get another chance; the next must-pass bill would contain it. Here we are today, the next must-pass bill is an appropriations measure, a spending measure that would fund the military for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so he's attached it onto this. Senators are saying once again, `Well, jeez, we still haven't had any hearings on this yet. The Senate has never taken this bill up at all.' Nonetheless, it is on the bill and it will be on the final conference report that comes out this week.

CHADWICK: So it looks as though this definitely is going to pass and will pass this week. It's going to change our lives when we go to the DMV to get a license?

NAYLOR: Well, it may well. In fact, the opponents say that this is going to create havoc at driver's license bureaus, that people who were once concerned about whether you can parallel park are now going to be looking into whether you're a terrorist. The states are against this. They say it's a huge unfunded mandate, going to cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. And immigration groups are also--and civil libertarians are also very concerned with this measure because they say it is going to be, in fact, a national ID card.

CHADWICK: NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

Brian, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Alex.

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