WASHINGTON - Efforts to overhaul the nation’s tattered immigration system appear dead for this session of Congress -- and possibly far longer -- after the Senate on Thursday soundly rejected a White House-backed immigration bill that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants.
The collapse of the bill -- President Bush’s top domestic priority -- indefinitely continues what advocates on both sides of the issue describe as an undesirable status quo that includes a vast underground population of more than 12 million illegal immigrants.
"The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws," Bush said after the Senate refused to cut off debate of the measure. "A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find common ground. … It didn’t work."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, echoing the president’s disappointment, asserted he would ratchet up enforcement of existing immigration laws but bemoaned the loss of $4.4 billion in enforcement money that would have been available under the bill.
Reaction to the outcome reached far outside of Washington. Conservative grassroots organizations who denounced the bill as amnesty cheered its defeat while pro-immigrant advocates -- and immigrants themselves -- said the Senate’s failure means further hardship for millions of undocumented families.
"This is the worst news I’ve received all day," said Ignacio Caravantes, a landscaper who lives in Florida City, Fla., with his wife, Araceli, and four of their seven children -- all undocumented migrants from central Mexico. "We were hoping that at least they would have voted to continue debate. That at least would have given us some hope for the future. Now, who knows what is going to happen?"
Asked about the Senate action during a joint news conference Thursday in Mexico City with former U.S. nemesis and Nicaraguan leftist President Daniel Ortega, Mexican President Felipe Calderon called the Senate action a "grave error," saying that by not facing the immigration problem now, "it gets worse through avoidance."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he remained hopeful that Congress would resurrect the issue, warning that state and local governments will try to take matters in their own hands through an uneven patchwork of local laws if Washington fails to act.
"The public is going to want us to act sooner rather than later," said Graham, a leading supporter of the bill.
But Graham’s views contrasted with what seemed to be a prevailing consensus that the Senate bill was the last chance for the current Congress to act on the issue.
"I’ve been the sunny optimist from the Sunshine State but today is the time to be a realist," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., another leading supporter. "I don’t see where the political will is there for this issue to be dealt with."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of the House immigration subcommittee, said the collapse of the Senate bill "effectively ends comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the 110th Congress."
After more than a month of off-and-on debate, the Senate balked at a crucial procedural motion to begin advancing toward a final vote by late Friday night. The motion was defeated 46-53, far below the needed 60-vote supermajority of the Democratic-controlled, 100-member Senate.
The defeat underscored Bush’s declining popularity and withering political capital within his own Republican Party. A highly vocal cadre of conservative Republicans rebelled against the bill, assailing the legalization provision as amnesty that rewarded illegal behavior.
Opponents also included liberal and moderate Democrats who feared that a proposed temporary guest-worker program would hurt wages and jobs for American workers. Some also worried that a new point-based merit system for future immigrants would undercut family-based immigration, a cornerstone of the nation’s current immigration system.
The wide margin of defeat surprised leaders on both sides of the issue, particularly after supporters won a vote earlier this week to take up the bill. In mustering only 46 votes for the so-called cloture measure, supporters were unable to reach even a simple majority, much less the needed 60 votes.
Only 12 Republicans, including Republican Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., voted for the motion, along with 33 Democrats and one independent. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was among the 37 Republicans voting against the motion. Also included among the no votes were the two senators from Bush’s home state of Texas -- Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a Republican presidential candidate, switched his vote to oppose the measure after initially supporting it.
"It'll come back," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the immigration debate. "It's only a question of when.
Bush has called for a broad-based immigration overhaul almost from the outset of his presidency in January 2001, urging lawmakers to enact comprehensive legislation that would grant conditional legalization to illegal immigrants, toughen enforcement along the border and create a temporary guest-worker program to provide a legal pathway for foreigners to fill low-skilled and unskilled U.S. jobs.
He aggressively backed by the Senate bill, which was drafted during three months of behind the scenes negotiations that included Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the president’s two top emissaries on the issue. Bush also traveled to Capitol Hill in an attempt to coax support from balky Republican senators after the bill was pulled for a week in a partisan skirmish over amendments.
After months of plummeting approval ratings and growing public opposition to the war, Bush has looked toward enactment of a major immigration bill as a crowning domestic achievement in the remainder of his second four years in office. The previous Republican-controlled Congress also rebuffed the president on immigration when a Senate-passed bill died in a stalemate with the House.
Bush and his allies believed they had a better shot this year after Democrats took over Congress and appeared more sympathetic toward Bush’s call for a comprehensive restructuring of immigration. The latest bill was crafted by a group of about a dozen key senators from both parties, known as "the Grand Bargainers," who met repeatedly with Chertoff and Gutierrez in search from a workable compromise that would bridge diverse, opposing factions.
From the moment it emerged, the bill clearly pleased no one, dividing both Democrats and Republicans as well as the array of advocacy groups that have a stake in the issue. But the bill’s Senate architects initially believed that they had a strong shot at final passage, particularly after fending off killer amendments that threatened to dissolve the delicate compromise.
Nevertheless, the measure continually faced danger signs, including the partisan dust-up that forced Reid to pull it from the floor for a week. Opposition forces sought to use the week-long delay -- as well as a week-long Memorial Day recess -- to intensify public outrage against the bill.
(Kevin Hall, Lesley Clark and Alfonso Chardy of the Miami Herald contributed this report.)