The Senate meted out a severe blow to President George W. Bush Thursday, blocking a landmark immigration reform seen as one of his last, best hopes for a legacy-boosting second term victory.
In a stunning defeat for the bid to grant a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants, Senators voted 53 to 46 against keeping the bill alive, likely ending congressional action on the divisive issue before 2009.
Bipartisan backers of the measure fell well short of the 60 vote super-majority needed to move the bill, branded by opponents as an “amnesty,” towards a final vote, after an emotional weeks-long debate.
Bush, whose ebbing power hampered his bid to persuade more than 12 fellow Republicans to support the measure, appeared to admit defeat.
“Congress’s failure to act on it is a disappointment,” said Bush, beset by rock bottom approval ratings and battling Congress on multiple fronts including Iraq, and a constitutional showdown over fired federal prosecutors.
“A lot of us worked hard to see if we could find common ground. It didn’t work. Congress really needs to prove to the American people that it can come together on hard issues.”
Hours before the vote, the US Capitol’s telephone switchboard was jammed by thousands of calls from groups and individuals for and against the bill, reflecting its fiercely divisive impact on US politics.
Republican Senator David Vitter, who worked to thwart the bill, said the message was “crystal clear” that Americans wanted action to secure borders before helping out illegal immigrants already in the country.
“They want action, they want results, they want proof, because they’ve heard all the promises before.”
Though Republican and Democrat leaders indicated that a vote against moving forward would effectively kill off immigration reform until after the 2008 elections, Senator Edward Kennedy, a key figure in the reform drive, vowed to overcome the defeat.
“We will be back. This issue is not going away, and we will ultimately be successful. This is really a part of a whole march for progress for our nation and the country.” he said.
The measure had staggered in the Senate for weeks, collapsing once before earlier this month under fierce opposition, mainly from conservatives.
But Democrats from conservative districts also found it difficult to support the bill, and some also fretted at the terms of its “low wage” guest worker program.
The measure would have granted an eventual path to legal status to some 12 million illegal immigrants.
It would have replaced the current family-dominated immigration system with a merit-based points formula, and attempt to cut a huge backlog for permanent resident “green card” applicants.
Even had the bill passed the Senate, it would have been assured a rocky welcome in the House of Representatives, as this week an influential group of lawmakers, voted by 114 votes to 23 to oppose it.
Democratic House leaders had warned Bush he would have needed around 70 Republican votes to ensure passage of the bill — to make up for Democrats from conservative districts opposed to it.