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Spitzer may be rethinking license policy Governor hints at backing away from order that they be available to illegal immigrants

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, in Puerto Rico Friday, offered intriguing hints that he may be rethinking his controversial policy to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"We'll see where we go," Spitzer was quoted as saying on blogs of the New York Daily News and New York Times, whose reporters traveled to San Juan with the governor for his appearance before New York Latino lawmakers.

The governor had hardened his position over the past month, insisting nothing would stop his policy from being implemented despite opposition from a number of fronts.

And in response to subsequent questions Friday, administration officials would not rule out that it is reconsidering the policy.

"This is a tough issue for people to get their arms around," Spitzer told reporters after a closed-door speech to the lawmakers.

"We have a plan. We think the plan is right. It's obviously not a plan that everybody out there supports. You know, the notion of -- the way policy is created, you put out ideas. Most of them we've succeeded in implementing, from the education agenda, the health care agenda and on and on over the course of the year. Sometimes you put out an idea where there isn't so much support, and you try to persuade people, and you see where you go. That's the way the world works," the governor was quoted as saying.

That Spitzer used words like "plan" and "see where you go" and talked in terms that were no longer definitive were being interpreted in some quarters as wiggle room in his thinking.

The administration was not being overly helpful in deciphering the governor's words. Asked if the administration is reconsidering its license policy, Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Anderson said, "I've got nothing further to add to his comments."

Previously, the administration had insisted, without hesitation, that Spitzer's policy was going to be implemented as the governor had presented it -- without the need for approval by the State Legislature.

Originally, the governor unilaterally implemented a new policy, reversing a program put in place following the 2001 terrorist attacks. His new policy permitted illegal immigrants to obtain a license if they presented a valid foreign passport and, despite opposition from county clerks and lawsuits, the governor was moving to enact the policy Dec. 1.

But after much criticism, including from many fellow Democrats, Spitzer reversed course two weeks ago and agreed with federal homeland security officials on a plan that offered three different licenses.

One would comply with the federal REAL ID law to permit holders to board domestic flights and enter federal buildings. Another could be used for crossing the border into Canada without a passport. The third would go to anyone who didn't want or need the other two forms of licenses, including illegal immigrants.

Licenses for illegal immigrants, under the new direction, won't be available until the end of next year.

But the new policy continued to outrage opponents of providing undocumented immigrants with licenses, while also upsetting Spitzer's former supporters who said the third form of license would end up serving as an identifier of illegal immigrants since many New Yorkers would not want that form of identification.

The impact of the governor's policy has gone far beyond New York's borders and also become an item in the presidential race. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been under attack for her dual set of answers she gave in a recent debate over whether she supports the Spitzer policy. Since her much-talked about performance in the debate, Clinton's poll numbers fell off, and her positions have been fodder for her Democratic and Republican opponents.

"We all know Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have it wrong on illegal immigration," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said in a new television ad released Friday.

That the governor's policy is causing trouble for his fellow Democrat from New York in the presidential campaign is not surprising, observers say, given the overwhelming opposition among voters. In New York, 72 percent oppose the license plan, and Spitzer's approval numbers continue to plummet -- not a solid position as he heads into what is going to be a bruising fight with the Legislature over a state budget that is already estimated to be $4.3 billion in the hole next year.

Moreover, it could just be a matter of time. The GOP-led Senate has suggested it will kill any funding for equipment and additional workers for the license plan in next year's budget. So, the question becomes, does Spitzer want to go to battle over the issue next spring during budget talks at the same time he's trying to get through other initiatives?

"There is very little room in the political spectrum for something other than taking a hard-line position about the border issue before you do anything about illegal immigrants who are here now," said James Campbell, a University at Buffalo political scientist. "The license issue is a very dangerous issue for the Democrats because of that."

"The Democrats ought to abandon that as quickly as possible," he said.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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