The Assembly Appropriations Committee, which typically announces decisions with little discussion and without a roll call vote, officially put the measure on hold. In political lingo, however, the action signifies the bill has all but died unless committee members agree to reconsider over the next two weeks, which typically doesn't happen.
This was the seventh time in seven years that Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, tried to pass the measure, which would establish a special license for the state's more than 2 million illegal drivers.
His most recent efforts have been passed by the Legislature only to be vetoed by governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis. This time the bill was shot down by a Democratic-controlled committee.
Political insiders suggested the measure was perhaps too controversial for an election year. The bill is opposed by Republicans and a majority of voters who say licenses would reward people in violation of immigration law.
Republican Scwharzenegger, who is running for re-election, has said he would veto the bill. His Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides supports the measure.
Appropriations committee chairwoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, said she "strongly supports" the public safety premise behind the bill, but said a "rational, productive debate" on the Assembly floor was unlikely.
"I held the bill with hopes that the Legislature can come back later when the issue can be dispassionately discussed in a way that will allow us to solve the difficult and myriad public safety problems posed by unlicensed drivers and and counterfeit ID's," Chu said in an e-mailed statement.
"As far as I am concerned, this issue is not dead and I would encourage my colleagues to continue to advocate for a fair and sensible solution."
The response angered Cedillo.
"It is absolutely unacceptable," he said. "My intention and my commitment is to move this bill to the floor. We have the right to have this bill debated, voted on, and moved to the governor's desk."
Assemblyman Chuck Devore, R-Irvine, said the committee made the right move, considering the bill is unpopular with the voting public. Slightly more than half of California's adults oppose giving licenses to illegal immigrants, according to a Field Poll released in March.
"I think they understand this is a little bit of a political hot potato," Devore said.
Mike Spence, who has led a statewide effort to bar illegal immigrants from receiving licenses, was surprised the committee held the measure, SB1160, which previously was approved by the full Senate.
"Obviously they know that a majority of Californians oppose licenses for illegals," said Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly. "and they didn't want to give the governor an issue in vetoing it, because they know this hurts Angelides because he's on the wrong side of immigration in California."
The national president of the Mexican American Political Association chided Democrats for keeping the bill from moving forward.
"They represent themselves as the party of opposition to anti-immigrant politics of the Republicans and they're demonstrating that they're no different in essence," said Nativo Lopez, who belongs to the Green Party.
Jose Sandoval, who has led a San Jose-based drive to gather thousands of signatures in support of licenses, said the effort organized by Voluntarios de la Comunidad will continue.
"The people are going to feel very sad about this situation," he said, "but they won't give up."