ALBANY - Sending a strong message to Gov. Eliot Spitzer about his plan to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, the Republican-controlled State Senate passed legislation Monday night to block the proposal and Majority Leader Joseph Bruno vowed a court battle even if their bill fails to become law.

After more than 3 1/2 hours of debate, lawmakers voted 39-19 with eight Democrats, including state Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), joining Republicans on the measure, which would require immigrants to provide a Social Security number as proof of authorized presence in the country.

"The consequence of this legislation is racist and anti-immigrant," said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Parker of Brooklyn. But Sen. James L. Seward (R-Milford) said, "It's not hatemongering but an honest attempt to close a loophole the governor is trying to create."

Bruno, a Brunswick Republican, called Spitzer's policy "clearly wrong" and urged Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) to press his members to vote on the bill so they "can express their heartfelt feelings," saying it would easily pass. Dan Weiler, Silver's spokesman, said the bill cannot be voted on because it has to go through committee. Even without an Assembly vote, Bruno said, "We are going to contemplate serious legal action ... "

Before the Senate session, Spitzer, after meeting with the chamber's Democratic minority, stood firmly behind his policy, noting that former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton supports his plan. Spitzer reiterated it is "critically important" to safeguarding streets, while labeling much of the opposition "overheated" and "counter-productive." Of a potential lawsuit, he said, "We think we are not only within our legal authority but squarely and easily within it."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The driver's license issue, which charged the Albany atmosphere Monday, is opposed by 73 percent of the public, polls show. It overshadowed other pending issues such as campaign finance, judges' salaries, and the future of the New York Racing Association, which all remained unsettled. The Senate, however, was expected to vote on more than 55 Spitzer appointees Monday night, including Dale Hemmerdinger as MTA chairman and Patrick Foye as Spitzer economic development czar.

Earlier, more than 100 people protested the plan at the Capitol. In front of signs reading, "Do not reward illegals with licenses" and "We're not bigots, we're voters," Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) said, "this is about terrorism and this is about illegal aliens and sleeper cells across the state."

The Assembly's Republican minority also held a news conference, saying they will offer amendments on Democratic bills to force them to take a stand on the plan. While the vote will likely be procedural, Assembly Minority Leader James Tedesco (R-Schenectady) said, "If they vote no, no matter what they call it, a duck, a chicken, non-germaine, it is still a vote ... on what they could accomplish, if they vote for it or against it."

During the Senate debate, Sen. John Flanagan (R-E. Northport) lambasted the governor for launching his plan "in the cloak of darkness ... without public discourse or legislative input," and maintaining it violates federal and state law. He also said that it undercuts the 317,000 legal immigrants in New York state who in the last four years have gotten their licenses legally.

However, Democratic Sen. Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan countered that Republicans are "playing in dangerous territory" siding with demagogues, while hurting 152,000 hardworking immigrants who have not been able to renew their licenses because of changes made when George Pataki was governor. "Take your head out of the sand they are not going away," he said.