WASHINGTON – Facing heavy opposition in his home state, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer on Wednesday withdrew his plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants but lashed out at the federal government for leaving the problem of illegal immigration up to states to manage.
"I have concluded that New York state cannot successfully address this problem on its own," Spitzer said at a news conference after meeting with members of the state's congressional delegation.
"I suggest to you what everyone already knows: The federal government has lost control of its borders. It has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country and now has no solution to deal with it.
"When the federal government abdicates its responsibilities, states, cities, towns and villages still have to deal with the practical reality of that failure. And we face that reality everyday in our schools, in our hospitals, and on our roads," Spitzer said.
Republicans — who have roundly criticized Spitzer's plan as another type of amnesty and a "sanctuary" policy — lauded Spitzer for backing off his proposal and mocked him for the idea.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., was elated by the news.
"This is one of the worst defeats any governor has ever had to announce," said King, who was expected Wednesday to introduce a bill that would prevent illegal immigrants from gaining driver's licenses. "It was a good day for America. A bad day for Spitzer"
"Spitzer has no one to blame for himself for this harebrained scheme," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., chairman of the House Republican Conference.
New York State Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco allowed that Spitzer was correct to attack federal foot-dragging, but said he went about it the wrong way.
"This is a congressional issue. They haven't done their job on a federal level. We have to do something about our immigration process, but the way to solve that is not to make our individual states like the great state of New York less secure," said Tedisco, a Republican, speaking with FOX News. He said Spitzer's plan could have opened the state to attacks like those seen in on the World Trade Center in 1993 and on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The answer to the federal problem is not to make us less secure ... The answer is to make us more secure and to put pressure on the federal government to do the right thing and develop a plan that allows individuals. to come ... here legally," he said.
Spitzer, a Democrat, introduced the plan two months ago with the goal of increased security, safer roads and an opportunity to bring immigrants "out of the shadows." Opponents charged the scheme would make it easier for would-be terrorists to get identification and make the country less safe.
Spitzer said overwhelming public opposition led to his decision.
"You don't need a stethoscope to hear the heartbeat of the public on this one," said the governor, adding: "There are some moments where emotions are simply too hot."
According to one poll, about 70 percent of New Yorkers opposed the plan, according to a Siena College poll of 625 registered voters released Tuesday. The poll, conducted Nov. 5-8, had a sampling error margin of 3.9 percentage points.
Last month, Spitzer sought to salvage the license effort by striking a deal with the Department of Homeland Security to create three distinct types of state driver's licenses: one "enhanced" card that would be as secure as a passport; a second-tier license good for boarding airplanes; and a third marked not valid for federal purposes that would be available to illegal immigrants and others.
Parts of that agreement may still have life. Aides to Spitzer said Wednesday he planned to go forward with the border-crossing card. The state took a wait-and-see approach to the second-tier license that would meet federal standards for what is known as Real ID — a national and secure identification that would make it much harder for terrorists to get licenses.
The issue not only caused controversy in New York, but also became an issue on the presidential campaign trail when Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., fumbled a debate question over Spitzer's plan, and later had to clarify her answer, saying she supported his plan in theory. Republicans and Democrats alike have used the remarks as a platform to attack and say she is trying to stand on both sides of an issue.
One of Clinton's harshest critics over her debate remarks, Republican Mitt Romney, quickly used Spitzer's announcement as a way to shake a finger at Clinton, Spitzer and Democrats.
"It took long enough to convince him and other open border Democrats like Senator Clinton that driver's licenses for illegal immigrants was exactly the wrong approach to enforcement, but at least Governor Spitzer finally listened to the American people and common sense," Romney said in a statement released shortly after Spitzer's announcement.
After meeting privately with the governor Wednesday, New York Democrats who agreed with him said they understood he had to retreat — but insisted the need for immigration reform would only grow.
"This governor was not defeated by anything other than the hate in this country toward immigrants right now," said Rep. Jose Serrano, a Bronx Democrat.
Others saw it as further proof the political paralysis over immigration issues has spread from the federal to state governments.
"This is an issue that's vexed Washington for a while. Now it's spread it's plague to Albany and I think the governor learned the lesson that immigration has become the new third rail of politics," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York City Democrat.
FOX News' Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.