Senate Republicans on Thursday delivered a crushing political blow to President George W. Bush by blocking an immigration reform bill that had become the top domestic priority of his remaining time in office.
The defeat exposed Mr Bush’s dwindling authority over his own party and increased the probability his troubled second term will end without a significant legislative achievement.
Mr Bush invested much of his remaining political capital in pushing for immigration reform, aligning himself with Democrats and Republican moderates behind a bill aimed at tightening border security while also offering a path to citizenship for the estimated 12m illegal immigrants already in the US.
But the measures faced fierce opposition from a large majority of grassroots Republicans, who accused Mr Bush of offering “amnesty” to people who had entered the US illegally.
Opposition to immigration reform has merged with growing Republican unrest over the war in Iraq to create the most serious breach between Mr Bush and his party since he took office. Two senior senators this week called for a change of course in Iraq.
Republican members of Congress and some presidential hopefuls have increasingly sought to distance themselves from Mr Bush in an attempt to prevent his unpopularity further damaging their prospects in next year’s elections.
The immigration bill fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and proceed to final passage of the legislation, with only 12 of the 48 Republican senators voting in favour.
The defeat marked the second time in a month that the bill had been derailed by a procedural vote, and its supporters acknowledged efforts to reform US immigration laws were now dead until after next year’s election.
Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the main architects of the bill, said: “It is now clear that we are not going to complete our work on immigration reform. That is enormously disappointing for Congress and for the country.”
Mr Bush expressed disappointment, and warned Congress it needed to prove it was capable of uniting to solve the country’s biggest problems. He urged lawmakers to keep working on energy legislation and healthcare reform, but with wide differences between the White House and Congress on those issues chances of progress appeared slim.
Collapse of immigration reform is the latest in a series of setbacks for Mr Bush’s second-term agenda, including the failure of efforts to overhaul the Social Security system.
Thursday's vote was also a blow to Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful, whose backing for Mr Bush on immigration and the war in Iraq has contributed to his poor performance in opinion polls and fundraising.
The bill sought to coax illegal immigrants out of the shadows by offering temporary visas to a limited number of new migrant workers each year.
Most controversially, it also created a path for illegal immigrants already in the country to apply for visas that could eventually lead to citizenship, subject to payment of various fees and penalties.
A poll this week showed 47 per cent of Americans opposed to the bill, with 30 per cent in favour and 19 per cent undecided.