Sen. Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) smiles in his L.A. office after being… (Damian Dovarganes, AP )
SACRAMENTO — It was an off-the-cuff conversation in a Capitol hallway that rescued one of the year's most consequential and controversial proposals, a bill to grant driver's licenses widely to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), wrapping up a Wednesday meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown, mentioned his disappointment that the measure was stalled. He thought the governor was wary of it, because the bill's author, Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), planned to shelve it.
Brown seemed surprised.
"Send me the bill," the senator recalled the governor saying. "I'll sign it."
Later that day, De León huddled with a fellow champion of immigrant rights, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). Immigrant advocates and their allies in the Legislature had spent more than a decade pushing this issue, and they didn't want to miss an opportunity while they had a governor on their side.
So, Lara, said, "we did a little covert operation."
In an unusual gambit, the senators quietly decided to move the driver's license bill forward — with or without Alejo. The strategy worked, and the measure cleared the Legislature late Thursday
The wrangling over the bill provided a glimpse of the fast-moving and unpredictable gamesmanship that characterizes the closing days and hours of the legislative session.
Lawmakers passed scores of bills in recent days, approving measures to raise the minimum wage, require overtime pay for domestic workers and tighten restrictions on assault rifles. They even found time to name a span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after one of their own, the colorful and controversial Willie Brown, a former Assembly leader.
But little this year sparked as much drama as the driver's license bill. Lara called it "a political soap opera."
Part of the issue was concern from labor groups, who worried the measure wasn't strong enough. In particular, they were hesitant that licenses issued to immigrants in the country illegally would be marked differently — the prefix before the license number would say "DP" instead of "DL."
Brown insisted the change was required by federal law, even securing written guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make his case.
"There was such disagreement with stakeholders about what's the right language, what's the best way to make sure this license is in compliance with federal law, that's where I was willing to hold off," Alejo said in an interview on Friday.
But the senators, buoyed by De León's conversation with the governor, moved forward anyway.
"The people can't wait for lawyers and activists to debate the esoteric, abstract virtues of a pure license," De León said in an interview. "People in my community want and need driver licenses now, not tomorrow."
Alejo, who said Wednesday that he would table the bill, said he didn't know the senators planned to revive the it a vote.
"That surprised a lot of people," Alejo said. "It surprised me."
The Senate passed the measure 28-8, with two Republicans voting in favor. Former Sen. Gil Cedillo, who pushed the issue over and over while he served in the Legislature, helped rally support for the measure from a distance even as he mourned the death of his father earlier in the week.
Alejo changed course and agreed to present the bill, AB 60, in the Assembly, where it passed 55-21 at about 9:30 Thursday night, winning the support of two Republicans in that house.
De León, Lara and Alejo posed for celebratory photos and posted them on Twitter.
During his 2010 campaign for governor, Brown opposed driver's licenses for Californians in the country illegally, for governor, saying he hoped the federal government would enact comprehensive changes to the country's immigration system. But he told reporters Friday that he had changed his mind after watching "foot dragging" in Congress.
"I think they need a good push, and that's what I think this driver's license bill does," the governor said. "It says California recognizes these human beings are very important to our communities, to our economy — and hopefully the people in Washington will get the message."
Brown signed a bill last year granting licenses to young undocumented immigrants who qualify for President Obama's temporary work-permit program.
The Legislature completed work on several other bills in the waning hours of the session Thursday night:
— They voted to loosen some environmental regulations. SB 743 by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) would make it easier to develop mixed-use and commercial projects in areas accessible by mass transit. The bill is expected to help the construction of a new arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.