The Senate rejected a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants on Saturday, a defeat that pushes any effort to reform immigration into the next Congress where conservatives will have even more influence.
In a 55-41 vote, senators failed to advance the Dream Act, which would have provided a way to legalize those immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children and who attend college or serve in the military. Three Republican senators voted for cloture, but 60 votes were need to advance the measure. Five Democrats voted no.
"It is disappointing that common sense did not prevail today," President Obama said in a prepared statement released after the vote. "But my administration will not give up on the Dream Act, or on the important business of fixing our broken immigration system. The American people deserve a serious debate on immigration, and it's time to take the polarizing rhetoric off our national stage."
Proponents of the Dream Act, formally known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, argued the measure was important because it would legalize people who have been educated in the United States where they have lived most of their lives. It was also a way of recognizing those who have served in the military.
"I've supported Dream since it was first introduced and each year the support has grown," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said during the debate. "They are hard-working young people or serving in the military. They have stayed out of trouble."
Feinstein argued that without the Dream Act, the illegal immigrants who have spent their lives in the United States are unable to use their talents. "They are relegated to the shadows by their status," she said, urging her colleagues to back the measure which she said "provides an opportunity and incentive for them to prove themselves."
But opponents saw the measure as the first step in the battle over broader immigration reform, a politically contentious issue and one that conservatives have fiercely opposed.
In his comments on the floor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) denounced what he called an amnesty bill for those who entered the country illegally.
"The bill at its core is a reward for illegal activities," said Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He also said the current bill is the fifth version of the measure and that none had gone through the committee hearing process.
"For two years Democrat leaders have ignored the public and rammed through unpopular legislation," Sessions said. "And now they are at it again, trying to force through another unacceptable bill in the last days of a lame-duck congress."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was reelected in Nevada with strong backing from the Latino community, also spoke forcefully for the bill. One of his campaign promises was to push the measure in this session.
"I am deeply disappointed that once again Republicans have blocked a bill that would strengthen our national security. In addition, the Dream Act would have grown our economy and given children brought to this country at no fault of their own by their parents an opportunity to defend our nation. Many of my Republican colleagues supported this measure in the past, but today their absence dashed the dreams of hundreds of thousands," Democrat Reid said in a prepared statement.
"Only three principled Republicans stood up to pressure from their leadership. The courage of Senators Robert Bennett, Richard Lugar and Lisa Murkowski is exemplary, and I wish more of their fellow members would have followed them," Reid said.
"Today we mourn, but tomorrow we shift back into gear to fight for justice and inclusion in America," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the Task Force on Immigration of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "We must not only fight to protect our Dream Act brothers and sisters, but also their mothers and fathers from the mass deportation policies that are staining and tearing our moral fabric."
The Dream Act passed the House earlier this month 216 to 198.