WASHINGTON -- A bitterly divided Senate killed a sweeping immigration reform package yesterday, depriving President Bush of a key domestic policy priority and destroying what proponents in both parties considered the last best chance to overhaul US immigration law before the 2008 elections.
The measure, which would have given 12 million undocumented immigrants a path to legal status while strengthening border security, failed when senators voted 46-53 against holding a final vote on the bill. While immigration is likely to be an issue in the presidential campaign, any attempts at overhauling the process probably will not happen until after the election.
Supporters needed 60 votes to keep the bill alive but couldn't overcome opposition from a small group of senators and heavy political pressure on wavering lawmakers. Despite intense lobbying, including a rare visit by Bush to Capitol Hill, authors of the measure fell 14 votes shy of saving the "grand bargain" that the White House and lawmakers in both parties crafted during months of excruciating negotiations.
"I am very disappointed we won't be able to pass the legislation," said a dejected Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , Democrat of Nevada. "But we gave it the old college try."
GOP opponents, who said the bill would give amnesty to illegal immigrants, called the vote a victory for the American people.
"I think the only victory here is for the American people and, symbolically, a government of the people and for the people," said Senator Jim DeMint , Republican of South Carolina and a chief opponent of the bill. DeMint and other conservative Republicans broke with Bush on the immigration issue, saying the measure should have focused more on tightening the borders and less on helping undocumented immigrants become legal residents.
Some lawmakers said yesterday's vote is another example of the demise of bipartisanship, an old Senate tradition in which lawmakers from both sides hunker down to work out a solution to a major issue. Republicans and Democrats made significant concessions on immigration, agreeing on what they saw as an imperfect bill in the interest of getting things done.
Foes called the bill amnesty, because it would have granted legal status to an estimated 12 million immigrants now here illegally, though they would have had to pay fines, learn English, pass a background check, and meet other requirements before being granted permanent legal status. The bill's most ardent opponents said undocumented immigrants should not be rewarded after coming to the country illegally or overstaying their visas.
When the Senate took up the bill last month, opponents sidetracked it on a procedural vote. Proponents urged Bush to use his influence to revive it, and the president agreed, telling reporters he'd see them at the signing ceremony.
On Tuesday the Senate breathed new life into the bill, voting to continue debating it. However, talk-radio hosts and other activists flooded the airwaves -- and the phone lines to senators' offices -- with angry denunciations of the legislation. At least two senators said they received death threats; Reid said Capitol Police are investigating a threatening call his office received from his hometown of Searchlight, Nev.
Several Democratic senators, meanwhile, were unhappy with the "guest worker" provision in the bill, which would have allowed foreigners to come to the United States for two years at a time to work. They would have been forced to go home for one year between work stints.
Some labor leaders said they thought that provision would have created a permanent underclass of low-paid workers with no job security, which they said would have undermined US citizens competing for those jobs. At the same time, senators from states with high unemployment rates worried that the influx of guest workers -- who, Bush said, are coming to do "the jobs Americans won't do" -- would take jobs away from their constituents.
Ultimately, a majority of lawmakers in both parties decided to kill a proposal that had been picked apart by interest groups across the political spectrum.
"A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground, a disappointed Bush said from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he delivered a speech yesterday. "It didn't work."
The Bush administration and Congress have rarely worked as closely on bipartisan legislation. Bush's successes on Capitol Hill -- such as large tax cuts and a production-oriented energy bill -- were generally engineered by Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
In recent years, bipartisan legislating has all but vanished on major issues. Lawmakers have avoided votes on controversial legislation and have greatly delayed even must-pass bills such as budget agreements and appropriations measures.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy , Democrat of Massachusetts and a veteran of bipartisan deal-making, said he has been able to achieve consensus on smaller legislative items but lamented that he was finding it harder to convince his colleagues to take tough votes on more controversial bills.
"The challenge we are facing is whether this institution is prepared to deal with serious, substantive issues, and whether members are going to be willing to find some kind of common ground," Kennedy said. "This certainly is a setback."
Many lawmakers point to the impeachment of President Clinton, which caused deep personal rifts among lawmakers, as a turning point.
The acrimony has continued with the closely divided nature of both chambers, and with the possibility that control of House and Senate could change hands during any election cycle, making legislators more skittish about taking stances on controversial issues.
Senator Lindsey Graham , a South Carolina Republican who helped craft the failed immigration package, wondered if his colleagues could reach a compromise and withstand criticism from interest groups to complete legislation he said was critical to dealing with immigration and national security.
"The American people are tired of the Congress walking away from every hard issue," said Graham, a freshman who took a political risk by backing the controversial measure even though he faces reelection in a conservative state.
Senator Jon Cornyn , a Texas Republican and a leading foe of the immigration bill, said the failure to find common ground on immigration wasn't because lawmakers refused to compromise.
"This is just a very hard issue," he said.
Two major initiatives that did involve bipartisan talks -- the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug bill, which provides some government-paid drug coverage for seniors -- have since become points of contention on Capitol Hill. Kennedy was instrumental in the success of both Bush administration initiatives.
Democrats pledged to work with Bush on immigration, an issue that held the promise of a new, if late, era of bipartisanship and cooperation between the executive and legislative branches. But that, too, fell apart as some lawmakers complained they could not win approval or consideration of amendments they wanted. to the bill.
After the Senate vote yesterday, Kennedy vowed to soldier on, noting that legislation on emotionally charged issues -- such as civil rights bills and proposals banning discrimination in housing -- lingered in the Senate for many years before they were acted on and finally approved.
The veteran lawmaker, having realized yesterday morning that months of cross-party bartering had failed, sat resignedly at his desk on the Senate floor as colleagues from both parties stopped by to express their regrets.
Senator Mel Martinez , a Florida Republican often at odds with the liberal Bay State senator on many issues, walked over immediately before the vote and extended his hand, and Kennedy shook it.
"Thank you, my friend," Kennedy said.