WASHINGTON — The Senate late Thursday defeated Sen. Jim DeMint's bid to require completion of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border within a year.
The 52-45 vote against DeMint's measure largely followed party lines, with Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio the only Republican to oppose it. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca, S.C., Republican, voted for the DeMint legislation.
Four Democrats voted for setting a deadline to complete the border fence: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jon Tester of Montana.
DeMint, a Greenville, S.C., Republican who helped lead opposition to a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2006, said only 34 miles of a double-layer border fence authorized by Congress have been built.
"The federal government is ignoring its own law at the peril of citizens in Arizona, Texas and really those all over the country," DeMint said on the Senate floor before the vote.
The vote was on whether to attach DeMint's amendment to a $59 billion supplemental spending bill providing funds for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, disaster relief in Haiti and the United States and other needs.
DeMint dismissed as "temporary and insufficient" President Barack Obama's decision earlier this week to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and to seek $500 million in new funding to help fortify the frontier.
The Mexican government's crackdown on drug cartels has increased violence along the border in areas where illegal narcotics are smuggled into the United States.
"Thousands of Mexicans have been killed," DeMint said. "We've encouraged the drug cartels to ship their goods to our border. We have mass chaos on our border because we will not do what we know works."
The Senate in May 2006 defeated an immigration overhaul that would have helped 12 million undocumented workers in the United States gain legal status while taking steps to fortify the southern border.
DeMint branded that bill "amnesty," helping spark opposition to it among conservative activists across the country.
After that measure failed, Congress in September 2006 passed a narrower bill authorizing construction of the 700-mile-long, double-layered fence along the border.
Only short segments of the fence have been built since Democrats gained control of Congress in the November 2006 elections.
The Homeland Security Department in 2007 began to shift its focus to erecting a "virtual fence" along the 2,000-mile border, using sensors, cameras and other high-tech equipment to prevent illegal crossings.
That plan, however, has been delayed by technical glitches and cost overruns. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano decided in March to slash funding for it.