WASHINGTON – The Senate moved Thursday to delay a politically charged showdown vote on legislation carving out a path to legal status for foreign-born youngsters brought to this country illegally, putting off but probably not preventing the measure's demise.
Facing GOP objections, Democrats put aside the so-called Dream Act and said they'd try again to advance it before year's end. They're short of the 60 votes needed to do so, however, and critics in both parties quickly said they won't change their minds in the waning days of the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"This is mainly a political exercise rather than a serious attempt to deal with our broken immigration system," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of several Democrats who have broken with their leaders to oppose the bill, said he too would block efforts to consider it.
The bill grants hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children a chance to gain legal status if they enroll in college or join the military.
The House passed it Wednesday night after Democratic leaders painstakingly lined up the votes to push it through. Just eight Republicans joined Democrats to support it while almost 40 Democrats defected to vote "no."
In the Senate, Democrats had virtually no chance of attracting any GOP support to move the legislation since all 42 Republicans have signed a letter pledging to block action on any issue until bills to extend expiring tax cuts and fund the government were completed.
The White House said the Senate's postponement was "the right way to move forward" to get bipartisan support for the bill. In a statement, press secretary Robert Gibbs called the measure "the right thing to do for our nation, our economy and our security."
There's no indication, though, that Democrats will be able to gather the 60 votes needed for quick action on an issue as emotional and complicated as immigration.
"We have to demonstrate that we are serious about fixing our broken immigration system, we have to secure the border, we have to enforce our laws, and then I think the natural compassion of the American people will kick in, and they'll let us deal with these sympathetic situations like these kids who are not culpable, but were brought here by their parents and find themselves at a dead end," Cornyn said.
The measure is viewed by Hispanic activists and immigrant advocates as a down payment on what they had hoped would be broader action by President Barack Obama and Congress to give the nation's 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
It targets the most sympathetic of the millions of undocumented people — those brought to the United States as children, who in many cases consider themselves American, speak English and have no ties to or family living in their native countries.
"We owe it to the young men and women whose lives will be affected, we owe it to America who needs their service in the military and needs their skill in building our economy to honestly address this issue and ask members of both sides to sit down, pause and reflect as to whether or not we can afford to say to these talented young men and women, 'There is no place in America for you,' " said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "There is a place."
Critics denounce the bill as a backdoor amnesty grant that would encourage more foreigners to sneak into the United States in hopes of eventually being legalized as well.
"The American people ... tried to tell this Congress, but the Congress and the political leadership refuses to listen. What they're saying is, 'Do not continue to reward illegality. Do not continue to provide benefits for people who violated our law, please,' " said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
With the GOP taking control of the House and representing a stronger minority in the Senate next year, failure to enact the legislation by year's end would dim the prospects for action by Congress to grant a path toward legalization for the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants.
Obama's drive to enact the legislation and congressional Democrats' determination to vote on it before year's end reflect the party's efforts to satisfy Hispanic groups whose backing has been critical in elections and will be again in 2012.
The legislation would apply to illegal immigrants brought to the United States before the age of 16, who have been here for five years and graduated from high school or gained an equivalency degree, and who join the military or attend college.