WASHINGTON -- Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer on Wednesday abandoned his plan for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, prompting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who has been widely criticized for her unclear stance on the issue -- to quickly follow suit and say she would would never support such a plan as president.
Yet none of that quieted the political firestorm over the issue, as Clinton's rival presidential candidates lashed out at her once again and Spitzer's Republican adversaries criticized the governor's handling of the issue while gloating that public pressure forced him to back down.
After a meeting with the state's congressional delegation, Spitzer appeared in a news conference to announce his reversal, saying the federal government must pass immigration reform.
"I have concluded that New York State cannot successfully address this problem on its own. . . . It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic," he said.
Meanwhile, Clinton offered her first direct statement on the issue. "I support Gov. Spitzer's decision today to withdraw his proposal," the New York Democrat said. ". . . As president, I will not support driver's licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration, including border security and fixing our broken [immigration] system."
>Dodd targets Clinton
Spitzer insisted, though, that he was right in principle, saying issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants would make them get auto insurance and improve road safety.
In a subsequent interview, Spitzer said he spoke with Clinton and others in recent days "to get guidance from them" on the issue. Asked if Clinton pressured him to back down on his license plan, he said, "No, no more or less than anyone else who looked at this and said, 'How do we deal with this issue?' "
He offered no complaints about Clinton's new position against his idea of letting illegal immigrants get driver's licenses. "This is a tough issue," he said.
Clinton has been the target of criticism from her rivals for two weeks after appearing to be on both sides of the issue during a debate in Philadelphia. Wednesday, she was more direct.
However, her statement did not pass muster with one of her Democratic presidential opponents, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. "It's flip-flopping cubed," Dodd said. "She was for it before she was against it, before she was for it, before she was against it. It's been weeks now, and she still hasn't offered up a serious, principled answer to the question."
Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani told reporters in Iowa that Spitzer had made the right decision.
"Giving licenses to illegal immigrants ends up creating an obstruction to the ability of the United States government to enforce the immigration laws," he said. "And, look, we all know that the United States government has not done a good job of securing the borders, but the last thing you want to do is put more obstructions in their way."
Spitzer's new plan appears to include two of the three prongs of an agreement he reached last month with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff regarding the future of driver's licenses in New York State.
Under that plan, the state would have had three types of driver's licenses. One would serve as a surrogate passport for people who frequently cross the Canadian border, another would be a newly secure "REAL ID" license, and the third would be a basic license for illegal immigrants and anyone else who didn't want the more secure and expensive alternatives.
Now, though, undocumented aliens would not be able to get licenses in New York, and Chertoff -- who never liked that third prong of the agreement -- said he was happy about that.
"What I want to make sure is that states aren't working at cross-purposes with us and enabling the kind of conduct we're enforcing against," Chertoff told the Associated Press.
Spitzer said plans are moving forward for a license that's compliant with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires passports or a similarly secure ID at Canadian land crossings starting in the middle of next year.
Spitzer insisted that the state is not backing away from a deal with Chertoff to enact a REAL ID license -- a post- 9/1 1 federal effort to bring more uniformity and security to state driver's licenses -- despite confusion over that issue brought on by initial statements from the governor and his aides.
"The deal was always that we had to wait and see what the regulations were" regarding the new program, Spitzer said, adding that some people "are misinterpreting" the state's wait-and-see attitude on the regulations to mean that the state is no longer backing the REAL ID plan.
>Lack of support
"It was very well-received," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y, said of Spitzer's announcement to the delegation Wednesday morning. "It was the right decision."
Schumer, Clinton and every upstate member of the congressional delegation skipped Spitzer's news conference, where several downstate lawmakers lauded him for courageously confronting the issue of illegal immigration.
"This governor was not defeated by anything other than the hate in this country toward immigrants right now," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a Democrat from the Bronx.
But Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, saw things differently. "At a gut level, legitimizing illegal behavior or activity just wasn't going to work," Higgins said. Regarding the license plan, he said: "There was no support for it, clearly evidenced by the local reaction, the state reaction and the national reaction."
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a Clarence Republican who was one of the first and loudest critics of Spitzer's plan, agreed.
"I'm a little surprised he's shifting the blame to the federal government," Reynolds said. "Obviously, we have a problem with immigration. The system is broken and needs to be fixed -- but to expand driver's licenses to illegals was not the solution."
>'He had to back off'
The reaction was equally positive back in New York State, where county clerks -- 20 of whom said they would not implement Spitzer's policy -- declared victory. "I'm delighted that he's abandoning this," said Erie County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul, a Spitzer-appointed Democrat who threatened arrests for any illegal immigrants applying for licenses.
State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, who was in Buffalo on Wednesday meeting with local labor leaders, said Spitzer's proposal was irresponsible from the beginning and got worse when he rolled out the three-tiered driver's license concept.
"He had to back off," Bruno said. "I don't know who was advising him when he proposed it. I don't know where that came from to begin with."
News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.
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