The bill managed only 38 votes on a key procedural test, far short of the 60 needed to advance. But what appeared to be a messy spat over process turned out to be a nasty political brawl, CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger reports.
The vote marked a turnabout from Thursday, when the Senate's two leaders both hailed a last-minute compromise on a bill that offered the hope of citizenship to millions of men, women and children living in the United States illegally.
But Republicans soon accused Democrats of trying to squelch their amendments, while Democrats accused the GOP of trying to kill their own bill by filibuster.
"It's not gone forward because there's a political advantage for Democrats not to have an immigration bill," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Countered Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "The amendments were being offered by people who didn't want the bill."
The vote fell nearly along party lines, with Democrats in favor of advancing the bill and Republicans opposed.
An alternative bill by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. — with no provision to let illegal immigrants stay but imposing large fines on employers who hire them — received even less support in a 36-62 test vote.
Senators say they'll come back after the two-week spring break and try again, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss. But history shows this kind of thing gets a lot harder when the pressure is off.
The Senate voted after President Bush prodded lawmakers to keep trying to reach an agreement, but both sides said the odds were that a breakthrough won't occur until Congress returns from a two-week recess.
"An immigration system that forces people into the shadows of our society, or leaves them prey to criminals is a system that needs to be changed," Mr. Bush said at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Friday. "I'm confident that we can change our immigration system in ways that secures our border, respects the rule of law, and, as importantly, upholds the decency of our country."
Republicans said Democrats perceive a benefit in having only a GOP-written House bill that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony. That bill has prompted massive protests across the country, including a march by 500,000 people in Los Angeles last month.
Democrats blamed Republicans for insisting on amendments that would weaken a compromise that Senate leaders in both parties had celebrated Thursday.
"This opportunity is slipping through our hands like grains of sand," said assistant Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Part of the real problem behind the lack of progress on the legislation is that this is an election year — and the closer it is to an election, the less likely Congress is to tackle big issues, Borger reports.