SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger met Friday with the author of a new law that would give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, setting the stage for a face-saving compromise that could convince Democratic legislators to repeal the measure next week as the governor desires.
State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), author of SB 60, requested the meeting to obtain assurances that Schwarzenegger would consider a different version of the bill next year if Democrats agreed to repeal the law in the ongoing special legislative session, people familiar with the discussions said.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto confirmed that the governor held a courtesy meeting with Cedillo in Los Angeles. He said he didn't have details.
"It was a very positive meeting," said Cedillo, declining to elaborate.
In discussions with Cedillo this week, Schwarzenegger's legislative director, Richard Costigan, emphasized that the governor wouldn't back away from his campaign promise to repeal the law, which opponents complain requires insufficient background or security checks on applicants. Cedillo and other Democrats want Schwarzenegger to say he would sign legislation if it addressed those concerns.
Cedillo's discussions with Schwarzenegger's aides haven't progressed beyond the issue of background checks, one person familiar with the talks said.
Schwarzenegger and his aides see SB 60 as a test of the Legislature's willingness to work with him, one advisor said. If Democrats block a repeal, Schwarzenegger will take a tougher approach, the advisor said.
Repealing the law -- which opinion polls show is opposed by about two-thirds of voters -- would allow Schwarzenegger to fulfill a key campaign promise and notch a high-profile political victory. The governor hinted in a Tuesday news conference that he would be open to the compromise sought by Democrats, once the law is overturned.
"First of all we want to get rid of it because it has been done the wrong way," he said. 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."
Since convening in three simultaneous special sessions on Tuesday, Democratic majorities in the Senate and the Assembly have delayed Republican attempts to scrap the law. The Senate Transportation Committee is set to consider the repeal Monday.
If the Legislature refuses to act, Schwarzenegger and other Republicans are vowing to overturn the law in a March referendum -- a showdown that many Democrats want to avoid.
The Legislature approved SB 60 without a single Republican vote. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed the law in September after vetoing similar legislation in the two preceding years, citing a lack of adequate safeguards to prevent terrorists from getting licenses. Although the bill Davis ultimately signed a month before he was recalled in an Oct. 7 election contained even fewer security provisions, the embattled governor defended his decision as the right thing to do for illegal immigrants who work and pay taxes.
Republicans have tapped into public distaste for the law. Schwarzenegger criticized it repeatedly during the recall campaign, depicting it as an example of special-interest politics.
"Signing the law was a desperate act by the former governor to placate the liberal left in hopes of saving his job," state Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) said Friday in a statement urging his constituents to sign petitions that would put the issue to a statewide vote. "Under our new leadership we have an opportunity to right that wrong, but only with the help of California voters."
Earlier this month, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation filed a state court lawsuit seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it infringes on federal authority over immigration and national security and facilitates illegal voter registration.
Times staff writer Joe Matthews contributed to this report.