A White House-backed bill to revamp immigration laws stalled in the Senate on Thursday, handing President George W. Bush a major legislative setback.
The sharply divided Senate refused to limit debate on the fragile compromise hammered out by a bipartisan group of senators and the White House. The vote was 45-50, 15 short of the 60 votes needed to advance significant legislation in the 100-member body toward a final vote.
As a result, the bill was set aside and the Democratic-led Senate moved on to other legislation.
Any delay diminishes chances that an immigration overhaul, already an issue in advance of the November 2008 presidential election, can be enacted before Bush leaves office.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, held out hope that lawmakers could return to the controversial bill at another time. "I doubt the prospects will get better with the passage of time," McConnell said. "I wouldn't wait a whole long time to do it."
The bill, which has drawn fire from both the right and the left, ties tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a temporary worker program and a plan to legalize most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. It also would create a new merit-based system for future immigration.
Supporters scrambled throughout the day on Thursday to patch together an agreement that would have allowed the bill to advance toward a final vote in the Senate. The delicate compromise painstakingly negotiated by senators from both parties and the White House had begun to unravel after a series of amendments that backers said upset its balance.
Although Bush has sought to make immigration reform a centerpiece of his domestic policy, senators from his Republican party sought to offer more amendments and said they would not be rushed. Most of them voted against the motion to limit debate.
"The majority is simply not going to get anywhere trying to stuff the minority and prevent the amendment process," McConnell said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped negotiate the bipartisan legislation, said he would continue to push for it. "This issue is not going to go away," he said.
Conservatives say the measure would give amnesty to people who broke US laws, while labour unions say the temporary worker program would create an underclass of cheap laboruers.