WASHINGTON -- The Senate resoundingly defeated a bill yesterday that would have overhauled the nation's immigration laws for the first time in two decades, crushing the chances of settling the contentious issue in the next few years.
After the rancorous final debate on the bill, lawmakers on both sides pledged to deal with illegal immigration and secure the southern border, but they disagreed not only on why the bill failed but also on what to do next.
The 46-53 rout was 14 votes short of the 60 needed to end the debate and move the bill forward. It was a major defeat for President Bush, who had pushed hard to achieve his last major domestic initiative. It was also a bitter finale for the bipartisan team of senators and two Cabinet secretaries who worked for months to write the intricately crafted bill.
About two-thirds of the Senate's Republicans joined almost a third of the Democrats to kill the bill, which had been carefully constructed to appeal to both parties but also drew bipartisan opposition.
Supporters appeared grim and subdued after the vote. They expressed regret at the bill's demise and warned of the consequences.
"What occurred today is fairly final," said Sen. Mel Martinez , a Florida Republican who was a member of the coalition behind the bill. The Cuban-born Martinez spoke of his deep disappointment and that of people "who share my background as an immigrant to this country, many of whom were looking to this effort as a way to improve their lives."
Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland both voted to limit further debate. The bill included a provision championed by Mikulski that would have increased the number of seasonal workers allowed into the United States from 66,000 annually to 100,000. Workers who had returned for three years and followed the rules would have been exempted from the cap.
Mikulski has long promoted the seasonal worker visa program to aid the state's crab industry. With the failure of the immigration bill, she will seek to expand and strengthen it through other legislation, a spokeswoman said.
The Senate's failure to address one of the nation's most pressing domestic issues means businesses and farms will probably struggle to find low-wage employees, the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants will retreat deeper into the shadows and immigrants will continue to cross the southern border. As these problems escalate, cities and states will come under pressure to come up with their own solutions to a national problem.
The bill's destruction also revealed deep fissures within the Republican Party.
Republican senators who backed the bill said its loss shifts the onus to their opponents to offer proposals. The Republicans who led the charge against the bill offered no new plans and said they would continue to urge the administration to enforce existing laws. And they portrayed the vote as a victory for the American people, a characterization the bill's supporters flatly rejected.
Some senators spoke about trying to pass smaller pieces of the 761-page bill, namely to create an agriculture guest worker program and allow illegal immigrant children to gain citizenship. Others dismissed the piecemeal approach, saying politicians would steer clear of immigration for some time.
"I doubt if there's the political will for that," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who pressed hard for the bill.
An unusually downbeat Bush expressed his dismay and made it clear that he would urge Congress to move on to other issues, including energy and health care. "Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress's failure to act on it is a disappointment," he said during a visit to the Naval War College in Rhode Island. "A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground. It didn't work."
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the Senate had made a "great mistake" in rejecting the bill. "The U.S. economy cannot keep going without migrant labor," he said.
Sen. David Vitter, who staunchly opposed the bill, described the outcome as "a great vote not for any individual senator, but for the American people." Before the vote, the Louisiana Republican had dismissed the bill as "a big amnesty with inadequate enforcement" and said it would "cause the problem to grow, not diminish."
He was joined at a news conference by four other Republicans, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who said the Senate should restart with "a laser focus" on border security and pressed for local and state officials to help enforce immigration laws. When asked what message the vote sent to the country's illegal immigrants, Dole said: "That is something that can be dealt with at a later time."
Democrats painted the outcome as a defeat for the American people. "The big winner today was obstruction," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had wrangled repeatedly with opponents on the Senate floor. "The big winner today was a status quo that amounts to silent amnesty."
Prospects for an immigration overhaul moving forward in the House are slim to none. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has said she wouldn't pursue immigration until after the Senate passed a bill. California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, head of the House immigration subcommittee, said yesterday's vote "effectively ends comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the 110th Congress."
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said that he was open to considering parts of the legislation as stand-alone bills, including AgJobs, a special program for farmworkers, and the Dream Act, which would give illegal immigrant children a way to earn citizenship if they stay in school or the military.
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.