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Border bill’s final blow?

By Karoun Demirjian

WASHINGTON — After months of political wrangling and raised expectations, the Senate voted down the sweeping immigration reform bill Thursday, and the vexing issue seems highly unlikely to be resurrected again in Congress until after the 2008 elections.

This comes as a major disappointment for President Bush, who was hoping to cement a second-term legacy with passage of comprehensive immigration reform, and it is another troubling setback for the Democratic-controlled Congress, which has struggled to pass major initiatives.

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“Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people,” Bush said. “A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find common ground … it didn’t work.”

Now the issue of illegal immigration, and how best to address it, is likely to end up in the lap of a new president and Congress elected next year as the status and future of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants remain in limbo.

The bill’s advocates were doubtful that a new president—even a Democrat–could inspire a climate more amenable to immigration reform.

“For those who say we should wait, for a better opportunity … that isn’t going to mysteriously happen,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

The Senate voted 53-46 Thursday against a motion to conclude debate, falling 14 votes short of the 60 needed to continue the legislative process and effectively killing one of the most contentious bills the Senate is likely to face this year.

The failure of the bill, which had bipartisan support, was also seen in particular as a let-down to Senate Democratic leaders. The measure was the latest in a string of failed efforts to pass legislation and that has sharply diminished public approval ratings of Congress as a whole.

“A lot of Americans have lost faith in their government,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), an architect and key champion of the legislation. “They don’t think that we can control our borders, that we can run a war, that we can issue passports … we’re going to have to redouble our efforts to demonstrate to them through actions, not just words, that we are prepared to be as effective as their government should be.”

Immigration will likely play a prominent role in the 2008 campaign as congressional and presidential candidates posture on the issue and try to woo Hispanic voters, a group Democratic pollster Doug Schoen believes will largely swing to Democrats.

“The group that is going to vote on this issue are the His- panics,” he said. “Republicans are against immigration— that’s a very popular position inside the party, but not outside the party. So while it might win you a primary, it won’t win you an election.”

Still, many Americans feared this year’s bill would repeat past failures on immigration reform, most of which stem from Congress’ 1986 immigration overhaul that mandated improvements in border security and legalization for the illegal immigrants already in the U.S., but failed to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants into the country.

In the past few weeks, many senators reported that each of their offices had fielded several thousand calls from constituents decrying the legislation as sanctioning “amnesty” for those here illegally.

The groundswell—which grew to such a volume Thursday that it temporarily jammed the Capitol phone system—led some senators who might have supported the measure to vote against it.

“I don’t think the message could be any clearer than this dramatic vote,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a vocal opponent of the bill. “The American people want us to start with enforcement … they want proof.”

But the bill’s supporters chided Vitter and others for squandering the bipartisan energy that had grown around the measure, a bill that Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) called the “best opportunity” for the Senate to tackle immigration reform for several years.

“Good luck ever getting it again,” said Graham, an architect of the bill. “The 12 million [illegal immigrants currently in the U.S.] will be dealt with. They’re not going to be ignored. They’re not going to be deported. They can’t be wished away.”

The bill had focused efforts toward improving security at the U.S. borders, instituting a new immigrant verification system for employers who wanted to hire them and putting those illegal immigrants in the U.S. on a pathway to citizenship.

The Republican presidential candidates have all been staunch critics of the bill, except for Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.), who championed the Senate proposal and saw his poll numbers suffer as a result.

Overall, immigration created a rift in the Republican Party, as GOP leaders advocating reforms were unable to persuade more than 11 Republicans to vote for the changes on Thursday.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and others who lobbied against the bill called on Bush to return to the immigration control laws already on the books. But administration officials who offered advice as the bill was crafted said the laws on the books don’t provide a workable solution. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called existing immigration laws “too broken to enforce.”

Some senators have begun discussions about splitting the defeated bill into component parts that could garner broader support, such as AgJobs legislation, which would create temporary work visas for seasonal agricultural workers, and the DREAM Act, which expedites green cards for illegal immigrants who entered the country as children and are enrolling in college or the military. Some Democrats said they would be willing to consider an enforcement-only bill as well, but most senators seemed convinced that the window for action on a broad immigration measure had closed.

“What occurred today is fairly final,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). “I’ve been the sunny optimist … but today’s the time to be a realist. I don’t see where the political will is there for this issue to be dealt with.”

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