House Leaders Promise Sensenbrenner Vote on Driver's Licenses

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) said Wednesday he secured a promise from House leaders that next year’s first must-pass bill would include language barring illegal aliens from obtaining driver’s licenses.

Sensenbrenner was unable to convince fellow House Republicans to hold out for the language in the intelligence bill adopted Tuesday by a 336 to 75 vote. Many of the members voting against the bill were conservatives who stood behind Sensenbrenner in opposition because the bill lacked a tough federal standard for the driver’s licenses.

“Real driver’s license reforms will replace the Band-Aid approach that was passed last night,” Sensenbrenner told reporters Wednesday. “American citizens have the right to know who is in their country, that people are who they say they are, and that the name on a driver’s license is the holder’s real name, not some alias.”

Getting the driver’s license legislation through the House might not be as much of a challenge as convincing the White House and Senate to go along with it. Sensenbrenner soundly rejected the idea that President Bush might want it attached to his controversial “guest-worker” proposal for illegal aliens.

“The overall immigration proposals I don’t want to mix up with the whole issue of terrorism,” Sensenbrenner said. “We have always welcomed immigrants in our country. We have problems with our laws. But to say that immigrants are terrorists really does a disservice to people who are coming to our country to try to begin a new life.”

Bush has yet to signal where he stands on the driver’s license proposal, other than telling members of Congress he looked forward to working on the issue with them next year. Sensenbrenner said the White House was trying to work out disputes within the administration before agreeing to the language.

He also warned that House leaders wouldn’t hesitate to include the language in a possible White House funding request for operations in Iraq, which is expected to be forthcoming early next year.

“I think that if it’s the first thing out of the gate, this will be added to it. The majority leader and the speaker have already talked about that,” Sensenbrenner said. “They have said it will be on the first must-pass bill, and they set the schedule. We will have this all keyed up so when the must-pass bill train leaves the station, this will be on it.”

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R.-Va.) pledged his support for Sensenbrenner’s proposal, which would also tighten the U.S. asylum system and close a three-mile hole along the Mexican border with California.

“Nobody’s telling the states who they can issue a driver’s license to or not,” Davis said. “But if you use that license for federal ID purposes, you’re going to have to show legal presence. People who board an airplane and show an ID have to be who they say they are if the federal government’s going to accept it.”

To comply with the Sensenbrenner plan, states could offer two types of driver’s licenses, differentiated by color or wording: one for motor vehicle users and another for federal identification purposes. Sensenbrenner also wants temporary driver’s licenses to expire when an immigrant’s visa expires.

His other two proposals — asylum reform and the Mexican fence — could also face hurdles. Senators Susan Collins (R.-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.), who negotiated with the House on the intelligence bill, rejected White House-supported language on asylum reform that Sensenbrenner wanted included. Under the proposal he outlined Wednesday, Sensenbrenner would grant immigration judges the authority to determine the credibility of witnesses in asylum cases.

Meanwhile, the Otay Mesa fence project near San Diego remains stalled over objections from environmentalists who have argued that the area’s habitat outweighs security concerns of illegal aliens. Sensenbrenner said by closing the gap, it would allow the U.S. Border Patrol to deploy its agents to other areas, including the Canadian border.