In a victory for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senate Democrats joined with their Republican counterparts Monday to repeal a controversial law that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses.
The Senate voted, 33 to 0, to repeal the law after only four minutes of debate. Six Latino Democrats chose not to vote. An Assembly committee is expected to take up the matter today. The lower house, which is generally more conservative than the Senate, is expected to vote as a whole within the next few days.
After years of struggle to win passage of the driver's license legislation, the swift reversal by Senate Democrats -- virtually all of whom voted for the bill only two months ago -- stunned and angered some of the law's supporters.
"These are hate, wedge issues," said Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union and a member of the University of California Board of Regents, her voice cracking with emotion during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing where the Democratic retreat unfolded earlier in the afternoon. "I just want to ask Democrats to stand up for the people who stood up for you."
In a victory statement, Sen. Rico Oller (R-San Andreas), author of the repeal, said the Senate "chose to do the right thing and repeal fundamentally flawed legislation that would have put California's safety at risk." Oller and others complained that the law failed to require sufficient security measures.
Earlier, Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the author of SB 60, set in motion the Democratic reversal when he announced his support for a Republican-crafted bill to repeal the license law, a move that Cedillo depicted as a tactical retreat rather than surrender.
"I'm placing my confidence and trust with the governor as we go through the process," Cedillo said before the Transportation Committee voted 9 to 2 to repeal the law.
Cedillo, who met with Schwarzenegger on Friday in Los Angeles, told reporters after the committee hearing that the Republican governor had expressed support for the concept of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. But Cedillo acknowledged that he and Schwarzenegger had not discussed the specifics of acceptable new legislation.
Even without an agreement on new legislation, which Cedillo vowed to introduce in early January, the senator contrasted his discussions with Schwarzenegger with years of frustrating negotiations with the Davis administration, which ultimately produced SB 60.
"We've gotten a lot more certainty and confidence than we've ever had," he said, adding that Schwarzenegger was "the one who has the most to lose if he's not honorable."
SB 60 would allow illegal immigrants to use a taxpayer identification number rather than a Social Security number to obtain a license. Thirty-seven states require applicants to prove they are legal U.S. residents when they apply for a driver's license, according to the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, the Legislature approved SB 60 without a single Republican vote. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed the controversial law in September -- in the final weeks of a recall campaign -- after vetoing similar legislation in the two preceding years on the grounds that the bills lacked adequate security measures. In fact, those proposals contained tougher requirements than the bill that Davis ended up signing.
In the week since convening in three simultaneous special legislative sessions, Democratic majorities in the Senate and Assembly delayed Republican attempts to repeal the law while Cedillo sought assurances from Schwarzenegger that he would support a modified version.
Monday's retreat by Cedillo and other Democrats was motivated in part by the threat of a March referendum aimed at scrapping the law, which opinion polls show is opposed by about two-thirds of Californians. Opponents have been circulating petitions to meet a Dec. 7 deadline for turning in the 373,816 signatures needed to put the issue to a statewide vote.
During the hearing, Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), chairman of the Transportation Committee, pressed one of the leaders of the referendum for assurances that the move to scrap SB 60 in a statewide ballot would stop if the Legislature repealed the law.
At first, Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, the organizer of the "Save Our License" campaign against SB 60, said he wasn't sure whether a legislative repeal would stop the ballot drive. Later, though, Spence said referendum supporters wouldn't submit their signature petitions to the secretary of state if the Legislature repealed SB 60 by a two-thirds "urgency" vote, which would immediately scrap the law. A non-urgent majority vote carries a 90-day delay, which would let the license law go into effect for about two months.
Opponents of the law said SB 60 would reward people for breaking immigration laws and would give terrorists access to California driver's licenses, a widely accepted form of identification. During the signature-gathering efforts, opponents of the law have used a blown-up California licenses bearing Osama bin Laden's photograph as a prop.
Democrats widely expected that the law would be overturned in a referendum and feared the political costs of such a debate.
In meetings with Cedillo last week, Schwarzenegger's legislative director, Richard Costigan, emphasized that the governor wouldn't compromise on his campaign promise to repeal the law and wouldn't consider replacement legislation in the current special session.
But Cedillo said he was heartened by Schwarzenegger's public comments last week, when the governor hinted that he would be open to compromise.
"First of all, we want to get rid of it because it has been done the wrong way," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference. The proper approach would be to "put a whole package together that's tied to insurance, that's tied to background checks and all that. Then we can move forward with it in a positive way."
Meanwhile, supporters of the law vowed to fight back.
"The Latino and immigrant communities are clearly disappointed by the Senate's decision to repeal SB 60," said Edward Headington, spokesman for the Mexican American Political Assn. "We see this as a beginning, not an end. We think this will galvanize the Latino immigrant communities like nothing seen since [Proposition] 187," the 1993 ballot initiative that tried to deny government services to illegal immigrants. It was passed by voters but invalidated by the courts.
The six Democrats who chose not to vote were: Richard Alarcon (Sun Valley); Liz Figueroa (Fremont); Dean Florez (Shafter); Deborah Ortiz (Sacramento); Gloria Romero (Los Angeles) and Nell Soto (Pomona). One lawmaker, Sen. Bob Margett (R-Arcadia), was absent.
Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this report.