(CNN) - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday touted an agreement he struck earlier in the day with state Democratic lawmakers that will give in-state tuition for Garden State students who are living in the country illegally.
The Republican Governor and likely 2016 GOP presidential contender also pushed back against claims two top Christie aides closed access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who didn't endorse his re-election bid.
And possibly hinting at his presidential aspirations, Christie said the man who steered his 2009 election for governor and this year's landslide re-election will now be "available to do additional work for me in the political realm"
Christie touts immigration deal
Christie praised the agreement he struck with state Senate Democrats on tuition equality, saying: "What we're doing is taking a step forward today that allows folks that we have heavily invested in to be able to avail themselves of in-state tuition rates, which will mean a significant savings to them."
State Democratic lawmakers had been pushing for a bill that would have also offered state tuition assistance grants, but Christie pushed back against such additional aid.
"What I was trying to do all along was to get to what I promised, which was tuition equality. I didn't promise tuition assistance grants or financial aid. I promised tuition equality, and the bill that will be approve into law today, I hope, is exactly what that will be."
Earlier this month, Christie was sharply criticized by the Newark Star-Ledger for allegedly flip-flopping his position on granting in-state tuition for undocumented students.
At Thursday's news conference, the Governor quipped that he would wait for apology letters to come from those who said he was not serious about the issue.
"Shame on all the people, shame on you, who accused me and others of playing politics with this issue. You were wrong and I hope you admit you were wrong," Christie added.
Asked if the deal would make undocumented students feel like second class citizens, Christie said "they can't be second class citizens if they're not citizens."
The pro-Democrat group American Bridge said Christie's response could hurt him if he runs for the White House.
"Chris Christie is trying to have it both ways... and failing. In a transparent attempt to make himself appealing to Latino voters without angering the anti-immigrant GOP base, Christie today created problems for both the primary and general elections in 2016," said American Bridge Communications Director Chris Harris, in an email to reporters.
Nationally, the GOP has struggled over the issue of immigration reform. But asked if there were wider implications from the state tuition deal, Christie said no, adding that "all I'm trying to do today is what's in the best interest of the people of New Jersey."
Hints of 2016?
Christie, who last month took over as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, praised the naming of Bill Stepien, his two-time gubernatorial campaign manager, as a consultant for the RGA.
"Bill will going there to be a consultant for the RGA, working on races across the country." I think he'll be a real asset for the RGA," Christie said.
But Christie said he likes the option of having Stepien be "available to do additional work for me in the political realm," adding that "having him available to me in this other way, now that our campaign is over, is advantageous to me."
But Christie didn't allude to what that work would entail.
Christie went in front of reporters in Trenton a few hours after news that New Jersey's unemployment rate plunged from 8.4% in October to 7.8% in November. The governor was quick to highlight the report.
"This is the single largest drop in monthly unemployment since the state's been keeping statistics," said Christie, adding that "these are all signs of a growing robust economy and job market in this state."
The state's unemployment level still remains well above the national average. And earlier this week, a national credit rating agency, Moody’s, lowered the outlook on New Jersey’s debt from stable to negative, citing what it described as the state’s sluggish recovery.
Christie not obsessed with bridge controversy
Christie pushed back against allegations from state and national Democrats that two of his allies on the Port Authority, who have since stepped down, closed some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September as political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, who didn't join some other Democratic public officials in endorsing him.
"I don't ever remember even meeting the Mayor of Fort Lee and I certainly don't remember getting any briefings at any time from campaign staff that this was someone that was on our radar screen as a potential endorser. So that's why none of this makes any sense to me. I think in the end this will be shown to be speculation by folks who want to play political games."
The controversy has grown in recent weeks, grabbing national attention, as national and state Democrats continue to blast Christie over the episode involving the busiest bridge in the country. There are now both state and federal investigations into why the access lanes were closed.
While Christie once again acknowledged that "mistakes were made," he said he's not consumed with the controversy.
"I know you guys are obsessed with it, I'm not. I'm really not," Christie said. "It's just not that big a deal. Just because the press goes around and writes about it, both here and nationally, I know why that is and so do you. Let's not pretend that it’s because of the gravity of the issue. It's because I am a national figure and anything like this will be written about a lot more."
Thursday's news conference was Christie's second in a week where answered questioned about the controversy.
The Democratic National Committee, which has taken the party's lead in attacking Christie, was quick to respond to his comments.
"It’s been over 100 days since the lanes were closed onto the busiest bridge in the world, and instead of answering basic questions about why the lanes were blocked, Chris Christie still thinks 'it’s not that big a deal.' Because of the Christie administration's actions, some commutes took four hours instead of 30 minutes; children were unable to get to the first day of school on time; and emergency responders were diverted," DNC Press Secretary Michael Czin said in a statement.