WASHINGTON - The US Senate dealt a fatal blow on Thursday to President George W. Bush's planned overhaul of immigration policy, dashing the hopes of millions of immigrants seeking legal status.
In a make or break vote that exposed deep lack of support among Bush's own Republicans, the legislation fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed in the 100-member Senate to advance toward a final vote.
A visibly crestfallen Bush conceded defeat and said he was moving on to other issues like balancing the federal budget when it became clear the bill would not be revived during his presidency.
"A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground (on immigration), it didn't work," Bush said during a visit to the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
Supporters of the bill, fruit of months of negotiations between a group of Republican and Democratic senators and the White House, were dismayed by the vote and said it was unlikely Congress would tackle comprehensive immigration reform before next year's presidential election.
"No one benefits now, there is nothing to look forward ... it's very disappointing," Rosa Rosales, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told Reuters.
Bush has sought to overhaul US immigration laws for years and this bill was seen as his last chance for a significant domestic legislative victory before leaving office at the end of his second term in January 2009.
The president was unable to overcome fierce opposition from fellow Republicans who said it was an amnesty that rewarded an estimated 12 million immigrants for taking up residence in the United States illegally. A majority of Republicans in the US House of Representatives also opposed the Senate bill.
Even the promise of an additional $US4.4 billion ($NZ5.87 billion) to pay for more border security and enforcement did not quell Republican opposition.
"We tried and we failed," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who helped negotiate the compromise bill.
The bill failed to garner even a simple Senate majority. Only 46 senators -- 33 Democrats, 12 Republicans and 1 independent -- voted to advance the bill. Some 15 Democrats joined 37 Republicans and 1 independent to block the legislation.
The bill tied tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a plan to legalise illegal immigrants and create a temporary worker programme sought by business groups. It also would have created a new merit-based system for future immigrants, something conservative Republicans sought.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called the bill's defeat "a profound disappointment" and said it amounted to a "silent amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Most Americans agree it would be impossible to deport all illegal immigrants. Businesses say massive deportations would create a huge labour shortfall.
Farmers have warned of rotting crops if Congress failed to enact the bill.
Some supporters of the bill, referring to strong emotions among constituents on the immigration issue, blamed radio talk show hosts for whipping up the opposition.
But Republican opponents of the bill said Bush should give up on broad immigration reform and concentrate on keeping illegal immigrants out.
The bill that ran aground on Thursday was also opposed by some labour unions, who said its temporary worker programme would have created an underclass of cheap labourers. Immigrant groups opposed measures in the bill that limited migration on the basis of family ties.
Supporters of the bill were crushed.
"We were looking to politicians for leadership on this issue, and there has been none and it's deeply disappointing," said Sheridan Bailey, president of Ironco Enterprises in Phoenix and a co-founder of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.
Los Angeles Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has emerged as a national religious champion of efforts for immigration reforms, said, "Each day that this status quo is permitted to exist is a moral failure for our nation, as well as a legislative one."