The immigration bill collapsed again on the floor Thursday, likely delaying an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system until after the 2008 election.
Proponents fell 14 votes short of moving the bill forward, reversing the Senate’s action Tuesday to stay on the measure. The bill hemorrhaged support Thursday, as six Democrats and 12 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), switched their vote from two days earlier.
“The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws,” President Bush said at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. “A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find common ground. It didn’t work.”
Members of Bush’s Republican Party played the largest role in defeating the measure. A small group of conservative senators succeeded in drawing out the debate for more than a month, allowing time for opponents to mobilize -- or, in their view, get a close look at legislation that they ultimately rejected.
“When the U.S. Senate brought the amnesty bill back up this week, they declared war on the American people,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said. “This act created a crisis of confidence in their government. Thankfully, the American people won today.”
Those who worked on the comprehensive measure were pessimistic about the chances of resurrecting it, saying a busy legislative calendar and election-year politics would likely push the issue to the next administration and Congress. Some senators said they hope to move pieces of the bill, such as one dealing with agricultural work visas.
But even Bush, who had made immigration the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, suggested that it might be time to move on.
“Congress really needs to prove to the American people that it can come together on hard issues,” he said, citing energy, health care and budget appropriations.
The vote followed months of negotiations and last-minute lobbying from both sides.
Bush made calls and dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to Capitol Hill, where they lobbied senators outside the Senate chamber just minutes before the vote.
“I don’t think you appreciate what is going on out there,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who supported the bill, to the Cabinet secretaries, referring to the heat many Republicans faced from talk radio hosts and the threats their offices had received.
Day laborers in T-shirts and jeans waited on benches in a nearby reception room. Members of the House Hispanic Caucus filed onto the Senate floor. Calls flooded the Senate switchboard.
And the conservative GOP senators who worked feverishly this week to stall the bill bided their time.
As the roll call vote began, the chamber turned unusually quiet, save for the senators who approached the clerk’s desk one by one to record their position.
When it became clear that the bill would fail, a buzz resumed as senators who were holding out their vote began abandoning the measure. At least one, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a presidential candidate, changed his vote from “yes” to “no.”
“It is time to let it rest,” Brownback said of the immigration debate. The reaction on the campaign trail, he added, “is just a constant beating.”
The Senate sergeant at arms alerted chiefs of staff and office directors around 3 p.m. to report any threatening phone calls, e-mails, faxes, letters or visits.
"Some of you have shared with me that your offices have received a range of viewpoints from people regarding the pending immigration bill and that not all of those views fall into the 'appropriate' category," Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer wrote in an e-mail.
"Please do not worry about whether or not your particulasituation rises to the level of a 'threat.' The Capitol Police would much prefer hearing from you about any situation that has occurred that has caused you concern."
The four most vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection next year -- John Sununu of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota -- opposed moving the bill to a final vote. All but Sununu voted for last year’s immigration bill.
"I just don’t think this bill struck the right balance," Collins said. "I kept hoping that the bill would be improved, but when we ran into the roadblock last night, it became very uncertain if further amendments would be allowed and debated."
Several Democrats up for reelection next year also opposed cloture, including Sens. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana.
The most noteworthy defection was McConnell, who is also up for reelection next year.
McConnell helped broker the process under which the bill returned to the floor this week, but he was noticeably absent from the debate, angering Democrats and Republicans who wanted his help in swaying his conference.
“Sen. McConnell was invisible,” said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.). “There was no indication of support from Sen. McConnell.”
Later, McConnell said in a prepared statement that he had “hoped for a bipartisan accomplishment, and what we got was a bipartisan defeat.”
“The American people made their voices heard, the Senate worked its will,” he added, “and in the end it was clear that the bill that was crafted did not have the support of the people of Kentucky, it did not have the support of most Americans, it did not have the support of my conference, and it did not have enough support in the Democratic conference, a third of which opposed it.”
There were various reasons for the bill’s demise, senators said.
Senators, including those who supported the measure, said voters had lost faith in the government’s word. They didn’t trust that the borders would be secured before the existing 12 million illegal immigrants were put on a path to citizenship, senators said.
“They got the premise backwards,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who opposed the bill. “They started with amnesty, as opposed to border security, first. It’s a two-step process, you got to get the border secured, you got to get border enforcement in place, got to solve the problem of illegal immigration before you solve the problem of legal immigration.”
Others disliked the process under which the bill returned to the floor. Reid and McConnell used a parliamentary tactic known as the “clay pigeon” -- breaking the legislation into its components -- which ultimately backfired because it stalled the debate Wednesday night before certain key amendments were raised.
Political pressures also likely played a significant role, said Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the chief Republican negotiator.
“The burden shifts to those who found fault with our approach,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). “I hope they find the wherewithal and courage to solve the problem that we didn’t solve today.”
Martinez, citing how he had always been optimistic about passing a bill, later added: “Today is a time to be a realist.”
Until there is a new Congress or president, he said, “I don’t see where the political will exists to solve this issue.”
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this report.