The Arizona Republican says the security situation along the order has deteriorated so badly that 3,000 guard troops are needed just to help protect his state. Even though McCain won support from a dozen Democrats, he failed to muster the 60-vote supermajority required to adopt his plan under Senate rules.
Democrats also repelled more than $2 billion in additional border security spending proposed by border state Republicans John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
The action came as the Senate continued debate on an almost $60 billion measure funding Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan, foreign aid and domestic disaster relief.
The GOP proposals were comparable to those made several years ago when many Republicans pressed border security steps, such as a border fence, instead of a more comprehensive approach to overhauling the nation's immigration system. Obama supports comprehensive immigration reforms but prospects for substantive legislation appear bleak in an election year. Just Tuesday, he promised to send 1,200 Guard troops to the border.
In the past, McCain has advocated changes to immigration laws that would give illegal immigrants already in the U.S. an opportunity to earn their citizenship. But as violence along the border has escalated - and in the face of a spirited primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth - McCain has adopted a harder line on immigration issues.
"The borders are broken," McCain said Thursday. "We have an obligation to our citizens to secure our border and allow them to lead lives where they not live in fear."
Kyl proposed expanding a program that throws illegal immigrants in jail for two weeks before deporting them back to Mexico, which he said is a deterrent to them trying again.
Cornyn wanted money for state and local law enforcement agencies, unmanned drone aircraft and other equipment, and additional Border Patrol officers and immigration agents.
Both amendments got 54 votes but fell short of the required 60-vote supermajority.
"Until we deal with this broken border, we are not going to be able to deal with other aspects of our broken immigration system," Cornyn said.
A top Democrat said Republicans were throwing money at the problem and urged waiting until Obama sends up his border security plan next week.
"This is a huge amount of money ... from colleagues who talk fiscal moderation," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "It's sort of throwing an enormous amount of money at the problem."
Obama on Tuesday promised to send 1,200 Guard troops to the border to support efforts to block drug trafficking and temporarily supplement Border Patrol agents until more agents can be trained. He also pledged $500 million for improved border security. The money could be added to the measure during House-Senate negotiations.