Supporters fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate. The vote was expected to be close, but as momentum swung against the bill, the fence-sitters drifted into the "no" column. The 53-46 vote against the cloture motion marked the end of the comprehensive immigration debate at least until the next administration, crafters of the bill agreed.
Only 12 Republicans voted to limit debate. Senate Democratic leaders had said they needed at least 20 GOP votes to end the filibuster. Thirty-four Democrats voted for the cloture motion, short of the 38 that Democrats had said they could deliver.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote that at least four Democrats who voted against cloture would have supported it if the outcome had been closer. "Democrats support this legislation," he said. "Don't focus on the Democrats."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who helped craft the compromise bill, said after the vote that negotiators knew Wednesday night they did not have the 60 votes. "I thought we came close. But we had some people who just wouldn't listen. It was very difficult," Feinstein said.
The political dynamics of the bill were always precarious. President Bush led the way for Republicans, while his conservative base was bashing the bill and GOP leaders for aligning with Democrats to find a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants.
Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona, who led Republican supporters on the bill, said several Republicans fell off when the outcome became obvious. "The vote was going to be close to 60-40," he said. "There is no question Democrats produced more votes for this legislation than Republicans. To the extent we are all Republicans, we feel bad about that."
But Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., another negotiator, pointed a finger at the bill's detractors. "The burden shifts to those who found fault with our approach," he said.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., one of the bill's opponents, said the next steps should focus on funding for border security. The bill included border security elements, but not enough for some.
Bush had lobbied for the bill and for Tuesday's cloture motion, which was approved 64-35. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of several Republicans who had supported that motion but voted against cloture Thursday.
Murkowski said the activities by a handful of conservative GOP senators that effectively shut down debate on amendments Wednesday evening caused her to lose confidence in the bill being improved after a cloture vote. "There were amendments that would help address the concerns that I had. We didn't see those coming through the process that we had undergone yesterday and that we anticipated today," she said. "It wasn't going to happen."