WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday resoundingly defeated a bill that would have overhauled the nation's immigration laws for the first time in two decades, crushing the chances of settling the contentious matter in the next few years.
After a 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 legislation failed, but 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 craft the intricate 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 (R-Fla.), a member of the coalition behind the legislation. 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."
With defeat of the legislation, cities and states will certainly feel pressure to come up with their own solutions to a national problem.
The vote also revealed deep fissures within the GOP.
Republican senators who backed the compromise measure said its loss shifts the onus to their opponents to offer proposals. The Republicans who led the charge against the bill have offered no new plans and said they would continue to urge the administration to enforce existing laws. And they portrayed Thursday's 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 (R-S.C.), a conservative who pressed hard for the bill.
An unusually downbeat Bush expressed his dismay and made it clear he would urge Congress to move on to other issues, including energy and healthcare. "Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress' failure to act on it is a disappointment," Bush 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 (R-La.), who opposed the bill, described the outcome as "a great vote not for any individual senator, but for the American people." Before the vote, Vitter had dismissed the bill on the Senate floor 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."
Democratic supporters painted the outcome as a defeat for the American people. "The big winner today was obstruction," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had wrangled repeatedly on the floor with opponents. "The big winner today was a status quo that amounts to silent amnesty."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) attributed the onslaught of criticism, some of which briefly shut down Senate phones, to "about 20% of the population that came alive very strongly." Feinstein and California's other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, supported the bill.
The legislation included border security provisions that would have added thousands of agents, along with physical and virtual barriers such as cameras and radar. It would have created a work-site system to verify that all workers have legal status. After conservative prodding, lawmakers added $4.4 billion in funding to the bill to accomplish those goals.