ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Congress handed President Bush a stinging defeat today, stopping a wide-ranging immigration bill with a bipartisan vote. Mr. Bush has made immigration one of his top priorities, and today's vote effectively leaves it to the next president to fix the system that nearly everyone agrees is in desperate need of repair.
NPR's Brian Naylor is at the Capitol.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Its authors called the immigration bill the grand bargain, but detractors maintained it was a sellout, and backed by angry e-mails and so many phone calls that the Senate telephone system was overwhelmed, they were able to kill the bill today. Sixty votes were needed to end debate on the measure and move to a final vote, but only 46 senators, not even a majority, supported that move. Fifty-three were opposed, most were Republicans, like Tennessee freshman Bob Corker, who denounced the bill, and while he was at it, the Bush administration.
Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): I think that this bill is not good for America because I believe America has lost faith in our government's ability to do the things that it says it will do. We've had intelligence gaps. We've had evolving reasons as to why we're involved in military conflicts. I think that Americans feel that they are losing their country.
NAYLOR: That populous theme was sounded by several of the bill's most vocal opponents, many of them Southern Republicans like Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): This immigration bill has become a war between the American people and their government. The issue now transcends anything related to immigration. It's a crisis of confidence.
NAYLOR: The immigration bill would have provided billions of dollars for border security, instituted a new merit-based system for legal migration and provided a path to citizenship for the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants. It was that last provision that fired up opponents of the bill, fueled by angry radio talk show hosts, who proclaimed it amnesty for lawbreakers. Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of just 12 GOP senators to vote for the bill, tried to refute that charge.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Amnesty like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but these 12 million are going to be here whether we legislate or not. So if it is amnesty, to do nothing is to have silent amnesty. They're going to stay here.
NAYLOR: Though many liberal Democrats had their own reservations about the measure saying it would hurt immigrant families, most Democrats backed the bill.
Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts evoked ghosts of the Senate's past.
Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): It was in this chamber a number of years ago that we knocked down the great walls of discrimination on the basis of race. That we knocked down the walls of discrimination on the basis of religion. Here in this Senate, we were part of the march for progress, and today we are called on again.
NAYLOR: But most of the Senate thought Kennedy was marching in the wrong direction. After the vote, Louisiana Republican David Vitter, another of the bill's vocal opponents, said it was time to enforce the immigration laws now in place.
Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): And the message is crystal clear that the American people want us to start with enforcement, both at the border and at the workplace, and don't want promises. They want action. They want results. They want proof because they've heard all the promises before.
NAYLOR: President Bush, who earlier in the day placed last minute phone calls to senators in an effort to save the bill, called its defeat a disappointment. It was also a rebuke of an unpopular lame duck president by members of his own party.
Republican Senator John Kyl of Arizona, one of the bill's authors, tried to downplay the president's lack of influence on the issue.
Senator JOHN KYL (Republican, Arizona): So the president didn't have a great deal of ability here to go out and twist arms, and I don't think he approached it that way because he, too, understood, that this was a very local issue, members understood their constituents and they were going to vote the way that they felt that they needed to represent their constituents.
NAYLOR: Congress may attempt to resurrect some of the less contentious provisions of the immigration bill, but the political sensitivity of the issue means any major repair of the nation's immigration system will now have to wait until after next year's elections.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.
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