WASHINGTON — The Senate killed a bill Saturday that would have provided a conditional path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants in a vote that highlighted the dim prospects of getting a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws through Congress over the next two years.
Democrats couldn't muster the 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster on the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which the House passed earlier this month.
The Senate's 55-41 vote broke mostly along party lines, though three Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana — voted with the Democrats. Four senators did not vote.
Five Democratic senators — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana — sided with Republicans. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced his opposition to the bill but missed the vote.
President Barack Obama, who promised in the 2008 presidential campaign to revamp U.S. immigration laws, called Saturday's vote "incredibly disappointing."
"A minority of senators prevented the Senate from doing what most Americans understand is best for the country," Obama said in a statement. "There was simply no reason not to pass this important legislation."
Opponents of comprehensive immigration overhaul rejoiced over the defeat of a measure that they considered an "amnesty" bill that rewarded bad behavior and a stalking horse for a liberalization of U.S. immigration laws.
"This law, at its fundamental core, is a reward for illegal activity," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said on the Senate floor. "This is an amnesty bill because it provides every possible benefit, including citizenship, to those who are in the country illegally."
Under the Dream Act, illegal immigrants younger than 30, who entered the United States before age 16, lived here for five years without committing any serious crimes, graduated from high school and attended college or joined the military, would've been eligible for legal residency after meeting other criteria.
A study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the act would've helped 300,000 to 500,000 undocumented immigrants. However, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposed the Dream Act, estimated that it would have benefitted 2.1 million illegal immigrants.
Dream Act supporters crammed into the Senate visitor's gallery to witness the vote. Several wore graduation caps and held hands as a Senate clerk announced the final vote tally.
Many were sobbing and hugging each other in the halls outside the Senate chamber after the vote.
"We were hopeful, we thought people were going to do the right thing, not politics," said Julieta Garibay, 30, an Austin, Texas, resident whose family illegally emigrated from Mexico City when she was 12. "We're going to keep on fighting. We're more defiant than ever."
But Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, one of the largest national Hispanic organizations, said Saturday's vote is likely a harbinger for the future when it comes to immigration and Congress.
With Republicans taking over the House next month and with the 2012 presidential election looming, Martinez predicted that little, if anything, will be done on immigration over the next two years.
"I think it looks tough," Martinez said. "It's going to continue to be an uphill battle."