WASHINGTON – Millions of border-crossing but passport-less Canadians and Americans can relax until mid-2009 if, as now seems likely, the U.S. Congress delays imposing tough new entry rules for land and sea borders.

“If it is delayed, it’s a victory for diplomacy,” Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said in Ottawa, crediting Prime Minister Stephen Harper for pushing the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush. “Mayors on both sides of the border, governors and premiers and elected people at all levels have been trying to impress upon the Americans to take another look at this and to delay it,” Mr. Day said.

Last week, Mr. Harper railed at the original timetable saying “this initiative threatens to divide” Canadians and Americans.

But in Washington, the most effective pressure for delay came from business lobbying groups, not the Canadian government. And it was Congress, not the Bush administration, that had to change the law.

A vote, expected today or tomorrow, would push back to June of 2009 a deadline requiring Canadian visitors and returning Americans to have passports. Mr. Bush has said he won’t veto the delay.

However, the precise wording of the proposed legislation remained unclear last night, and at least one lobbyist working feverishly to have the delay included said there were fears the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives might strip that clause out before a vote.

If the delay provision survives, it will buy both governments time to sort out an issue that threatens to create chaos at land crossings and has the potential to turn into a nasty bilateral spat.

“It’s a positive first step,” said Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian-American Business Council, which has played a pivotal role in lobbying Congress to re-consider the deadlines contained in its 2004 law setting out a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. “But we shouldn’t mistake that the issue has been solved,” even if there is a delay, she said.

The original law — passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in response to a widespread perception that U.S. border security was too lax — seemingly ended decades of casual crossing of the border by Americans and Canadians who often flashed nothing more than a driver’s licence.

That era may not be entirely dead.

Yesterday, with uncertainty about the delay still unresolved, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered another glimmer of hope to groups on both sides of the border who want an upgraded drivers licence that would establish citizenship. He told a House of Representatives committee that he was willing to discuss a pilot project with Washington state and British Columbia.

“Our intent is not to insist on a passport, but . . . something that’s equivalent to a passport in terms of verifying citizenship,” he said. “We’re obviously open to different solutions.”

With a report from Jeff Sallot in Ottawa