The political battles that helped bring down sweeping immigration legislation in the Senate are sure to rage on, although the bill is all...

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WASHINGTON — The political battles that helped bring down sweeping immigration legislation in the Senate are sure to rage on, although the bill is all but dead until after the 2008 elections.

“Immigration is going to have to wait until we get a new president and a new Congress,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after a 46-53 procedural vote Thursday derailed efforts to move the bill toward final passage.

The House also is almost certain to dodge the issue, with leaders of both parties hoping to spare members the fractious debate that dragged on almost three weeks in the Senate.

Supporters of the Senate bill had indicated they were close to the 60 votes needed to end debate, but the forces of the political right and left overwhelmed an effort to address one of the most difficult issues facing the country.

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“Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress’ failure to act on it is a disappointment,” said President Bush, who has pushed a comprehensive reworking of immigration laws since he came to Washington. “A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find a common ground — it didn’t work.”

The bill would have coupled tough border-enforcement measures and a crackdown on employers with a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, a new guest-worker system for foreigners seeking entry and dramatic changes to the system of legal migration. A dozen senators, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez spent nearly six months hammering out a bill.

Chertoff said the administration would continue trying to enforce existing laws, building fences and beefing up border patrols. But, he said, without the $4.4 billion for Homeland Security in the bill and a much more stringent system to verify the legality of job applicants, the flood of illegal immigrants is not likely to recede — an estimated 500,000 enter the U.S. every year. Employers still will have no real way to unmask illegal job applicants.

Chertoff angrily dismissed critics, especially conservatives who said they could not support the bill until the administration shows it can enforce existing laws, accusing them of saying, “We need better weapons, but we’ll give you the weapons after you win the war.”

“The American people don’t have faith in their government’s ability to win a war, enforce border security or even process passport requests,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of the bill’s sponsors.

Rarely is a legislative fight as emotional as the battle over immigration. A flood of angry phone calls from opponents of the bill shut down the Capitol switchboard ahead of the vote, overwhelming the message from a small group of immigrant-rights demonstrators urging passage outside. Latino lawmakers from the House flooded onto the Senate floor to encourage senators to keep the legislation alive and let the House have a turn.

In a mark of lawmakers’ ambivalence, however, the outcome was substantially different from a test vote Tuesday, when a 64-35 vote revived the bill. Then, 24 Republicans joined 39 Democrats and Independent Joe Lieberman to move ahead with the bill. On Thursday, 12 Republicans and six Democrats switched their votes. Washington state Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell voted for the bill on both occasions.

Opponents of the bill painted the fight as the people of the United States battling a government that has grown insensitive to an illegal-immigrant invasion that threatens the fabric of the nation. Proponents said the Senate had succumbed to the angry voices of hate, venom and racism.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the bill’s architects, compared the fight with the Senate’s long struggle for civil-rights legislation against segregationist opponents.

“You cannot stop the march for progress in the United States,” he declared.

To that, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., among the bill’s most aggressive foes, snapped: “To suggest this was about racism is the height of ugliness and arrogance.”

In truth, opposition was far more complex than proponents were letting on. The bill’s 12 architects created a measure that was reviled by foes of illegal immigration, opposed by most labor unions and unloved by immigration advocates. Opposition came not only from talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, but from the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO.

The outcome was a major blow to Bush, dealt largely by members of his party. The president made a last-ditch round of phone calls in a bid to rescue the bill, but with his poll numbers at record lows, his appeals proved fruitless.

With such a resounding defeat, Bush lost what is likely to be the last, best chance at a major domestic accomplishment for his second term.

“It’s the incredible shrinking presidency. He’s lost battles in the courts. He’s lost battles in Iraq. He’s lost battles on Capitol Hill,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “His bank account is empty, and there’s nowhere to go for more. I think his presidency is essentially over.”

Republicans on both sides acknowledged the immigration fight had riven the GOP. Republican Senate aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., was furious with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., over the leader’s refusal to confront the bill’s most implacable opponents, who had virtually commandeered the Senate floor, blocking introduction of amendments, refusing to offer amendments of their own, then complaining that an unfair process was preventing them from improving the bill.

Lott told McConnell that Sens. Vitter, Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., were becoming the uncompromising faces of the Republican Party, a prospect that could set them back for years as the Latino vote grows in power.

McConnell went along with Reid’s novel attempt to end-run the triumvirate, collapsing 26 amendments into one giant “clay pigeon,” then splitting it into 26 distinct pieces to vote on. But when Vitter, DeMint and Sessions blasted Reid as unfair, McConnell stayed silent. Indeed, he virtually disappeared from the Senate floor, until he came to vote against the bill.

The vote tally was expected to come in on a knife’s edge, but when Alaska’s two fence-straddling Republicans, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, filed their votes together against ending debate, Republican support collapsed.

Ultimately, the GOP leadership split in half, with Lott and Republican Conference Chairman Kyl voting for the bill and McConnell and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas voting against.

“I do think this has created real divisions within the party, within our Senate caucus, within the Republican Party more generally,” DeMint said.

Compiled from The Washington Post, Gannett News Service, The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers

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