WASHINGTON -- The Senate drove a stake today through President Bush's plan to legalize millions of unlawful immigrants, likely postponing major action on immigration until after the 2008 elections.
After the stinging political setback, Bush sounded resigned to defeat.
"Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress' failure to act on it is a disappointment," he said after an appearance in Newport, R.I. "A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground. It didn't work."
The bill's Senate supporters fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and clear the way for final passage of the legislation, which critics assailed as offering amnesty to illegal immigrants. The vote was 46 to 53 in favor of limiting the debate.
Some senators in both parties said the issue is so volatile that Congress is unlikely to revisit it this fall or next year, when the presidential election will increasingly dominate American politics. t
Bush appeared glum as he spoke. His negotiators had expressed optimism the vote would go their way _ or, at least be closer.
"Congress really needs to prove to the American people that it can come together on hard issues," Bush said. He turned attention to other his other goals in Congress this year, including energy, health care and balanced-budget initiatives.
Last year a similar immigration effort collapsed in Congress, and the House has not bothered with an immigration bill this year, awaiting Senate action.
The vote was a defeat for a bipartisan group of lawmakers who advocated the bill as an imperfect but necessary fix of current immigration practices in which many illegal immigrants use forged documents or lapsed visas to live and work in the United States.
It was a victory for Republican conservatives who strongly criticized the bill's provisions that would have established pathways to lawful status for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. They were aided by talk radio and TV hosts who repeatedly attacked the bill and urged listeners to flood Congress with calls, faxes and e-mails.
Voting to allow the bill to proceed by ending debate were 33 Democrats, 12 Republicans and independent Joe Lieberman, Conn. Voting to block the bill by not limiting debate were 37 Republicans, 15 Democrats and independent Bernard Sanders, Vt. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., did not vote.
The bill would have toughened border security and instituted a new system for weeding out illegal immigrants from workplaces. It would have created a new guest worker program and allowed millions of illegal immigrants to obtain legal status if they briefly returned home.
Bush, making a last-ditch bid to salvage the bill, called senators early Thursday morning to urge their support. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez approached senators as they entered and left the chamber shortly before the vote.
But conservatives from Bush's own party led the opposition. They repeatedly said the government must secure the borders before allowing millions of illegal aliens a path to legal status.
Sen. Elizabeth H. Dole, R-N.C., said many Americans "don't have confidence" that borders, especially with Mexico, will be significantly tightened. "It's not just promises but proof that the American people want," Dole said.
But the bill's backers said border security and accommodations to illegal immigrants must go hand in hand.
"Year after year, we've had the broken borders," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "Year after year, we've seen the exploitation of workers."
After the vote, he said: "It is now clear that we are not going to complete our work on immigration reform. That is enormously disappointing for Congress and for the country." Kennedy, a chief proponent of the bill, said, "we will be back. This issue is not going away."
But before the vote, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told colleagues the political climate almost surely would not allow a serious reconsideration until 2009 or later. It would be highly unlikely, she said, "in the next few years to fix the existing system ... . We are so close."
From the beginning, the bill's most forceful opponents were southern Republicans. GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jeff Sessions of Alabama led the charge, often backed by Texan John Cornyn.
Two southern Republicans _ Lindsey Graham, S.C., and Mel Martinez, Fla., who was born in Cuba _ supported it.
Also crucial to the bill's demise was opposition from three Democrats recently elected from GOP-leaning states: Jon Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia.
All the Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate voted to end debate and advance the bill. Among the Republican candidates, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona voted to keep the measure alive. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., at first voted with McCain, but switched his vote when it was clear the bid to end debate would fail.
Sessions said on the Senate floor after the vote that Americans "are not mean-spirited, but they are concerned about a lawful system of immigration."
DeMint told reporters, "I think the only victory here is for the American people and, symbolically, a government of the people and for the people. The people responded to this issue in a very emotional and just a very engaged way, which changed the minds of many people here in the Senate."
DeMint said he hoped "we'll proceed with the security and enforcement aspects of this bill, and that will pave the way of how we solve some of the other problems."
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