Beyond this summer, the political and legislative calendars don't favor a quick turnaround, and House Democrats will be reluctant to act given the continued stalemate in the Senate. Already the 2008 presidential elections have begun to intrude on the debate, and Republican lawmakers, worried about their own political survical, are more reluctant to take risks for the president.
Like Lyndon Johnson on civil rights and Bill Clinton on welfare reform and trade, the immigration issue has pitted Mr. Bush squarely against his party's base. But given the strain of Iraq, he is far weaker than at this stage in his presidency, and today's defeat is sure to be seized upon by Mr. Bush's critics as further evidence of his lameduck status.
The split among his fellow Southern Republicans was most striking. While cabinet members came to lobby in the lobby, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, up for relection next year in Kentucky, kept to the fringe of the debate, and a band of conservatives from South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana dominated the floor opposition.
"A decent respect for the views of the American people says stop here now, let's go back to the drawing board," warned Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), and Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) said the debate betrayed "a crisis of confidence" in the government.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) accused his colleagues of taking advantage of voters by holding out the false promise, he said, of something better and dashing the hopes for a politically difficult compromise.
"It is a problem America has to deal with it and we want someone else to do it because we are afraid…This is about our jobs," he said with contempt. "The American people have a low opinion of us because we can't seem to do the things we have to do because we are too worried about us and not them."
And Sen. Mel Martinez (R., Fla.), born in Cuban and now general chairman for national Republicans, spoke of his own life experience. "Immigrants come to America not to change this country but to be changed by this country…This is a divisive issue but I do believe it will bind and heal our country if we do something to deal with it."
The core measure, like the immigration proposal that failed last year, promises millions of undocumented workers now in the U.S. a chance to legalize their status and move onto a path to citizenship. Trying to quell a revolt on the right, the administration has promised billions for border security and new restrictions to stem the tide of immigrants who may follow this mass legalization. And the undocumented—seeking to legalize their status-- would have to wait eight to 13 years to gain permanent residency and even return to their native countries—albeit briefly—as part of the application process.
But it was never enough given the antipathy sowed by a prior amnesty granted in 1986 and the flow of illegal immigration that followed. Few issues touch more chords in American politics: race, jobs, respect for law, and a hunger for more security in a post 9/11, "globalized" world.
"You reward illegality, you get more of it," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), who had supported the 1986 bill under Ronald Reagan. "Social cohesion depends on the rule of law and respect for law."
"Are we going to have a constructive and positive resolution of this issue or are we going to be naysayers, naysayers?" asked Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass) in a final appeal. "Bumper-sticker solutioners that say `Oh we're against amnesty so we're against this bill' America deserves better. This issue is too important. This is the place and the Senate is the forum."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R, Ariz.), who opposed last year's failed proposal but then joined in crafting the new package, appealed to his party: "In order to enforce the law we have to have an enforceable law…Doing nothing is not acceptable."