After weeks of mounting criticism on an issue that even found its way into the presidential campaign, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer this morning will back away from his controversial plan to let illegal immigrants obtain New York driver's licenses.
The governor will use a meeting with New York's congressional delegation to say that the immigration issue is a matter for the federal government and that he will delay any further move with his license policy until after the 2008 presidential election, well-placed sources told The Buffalo News on Tuesday.
Spitzer, who is taking a beating in the polls because of his policy, will likely again bash the Bush administration for ignoring the issue of illegal immigration and urge that the next president take up the matter in 2009, sources said.
The governor's abandonment of the policy was inevitable, say many Republicans and Democrats who have seen the Spitzer administration's agenda grind to a halt over the license policy and other problems. Christine Anderson, a Spitzer spokeswoman, declined to comment.
But one source said the delay in the licensing plan will occur while the state "waits until Washington gets serious about this issue."
Spitzer this morning is expected to again defend his policy as sound -- both for improving road safety and bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows. But the governor believes that the issue is a subject for a national debate, not just an Albany showdown, sources said.
The governor has been facing gloomy prospects over his license plan. A poll released Tuesday showed his standing among voters plummeting because of the issue.
Senate Republicans were already threatening to make a major issue out of the policy during next spring's budget talks, which could halt action on other matters. Furthermore, Spitzer already had said he was delaying the licensing policy for up to a year.
The opposition spread wildly in recent weeks. While it drew the expected partisan rebukes from Republicans in the State Legislature, Democrats, too, joined in, as did the mayor of New York City, a former commissioner of the federal 9/1 1 commission, family members of 9/1 1 victims and others. The most vocal critics, though, were county clerks, who run motor vehicle offices for the state.
In all, 20 clerks said they would not implement the policy -- which drew threats of legal action by Spitzer. Erie County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul, a Democrat appointed earlier this year by Spitzer, said she would call local police agencies to have illegal immigrants arrested and deported if they sought a driver's license in one of her branches.
For Democrats, the policy announcement by Spitzer -- which reversed a state program begun after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- was poison. They angrily denounced Spitzer for unveiling it a month before the November elections, which gave Republican candidates an instant message with which to campaign in local contests.
The policy also helped drive down the poll numbers for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential campaign. Originally, she avoided stating her position, but then in a recent Democratic debate, Clinton both supported and opposed the plan, leading opponents to tag her as waffling on an important immigration issue.
Spitzer originally said his policy would end the days of license applicants' having to provide a Social Security number. Instead, illegal immigrants could obtain a license if they presented a valid foreign passport along with other identification. There are between 500,000 and 1 million illegal immigrants in New York.
After weeks of taking a pounding, he reversed course, of sorts, by entering into a deal with the federal government to have the state issue three different licenses. Illegal immigrants would be eligible for one of the licenses. He also delayed by up to a year the start of the new license policy, which was supposed to go into effect Dec. 1.
That deal did not allay critics, but it had a new effect: His past supporters lashed out at him for creating a license that would be viewed as something mostly illegal immigrants would want. That, they said, would hold them out for discrimination in everything from housing to driving. So Spitzer was attacked on two fronts, while numerous allies, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, backed away.
In Congress, Democrats and Republicans joined in opposing Spitzer. A Long Island Republican introduced legislation to ban states from issuing licenses to illegal immigrants.
In Albany on Tuesday, many Democrats and Republicans were predicting that Spitzer would drop his plan as soon as this morning.
"It's wrong. It won't happen," State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, Spitzer's chief political rival, said Tuesday of the license plan.
Asked if he thought Spitzer would reverse the policy, Bruno said, "He'll have to." Bruno called the plan too "bureaucratic" and too "expensive."
Bruno's GOP colleagues in the Senate have threatened to try to block funding for the state Department of Motor Vehicles next year if Spitzer continued to pursue the policy change.
"Hopefully," Bruno told reporters, "he himself will just come to his senses and just withdraw it and say it was not the way to go."