WASHINGTON - President Bush blamed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on Saturday for the potentially fatal blow dealt to compromise immigration legislation.
The landmark bill, which would offer eventual citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants, fell victim Friday to internal disputes in both parties.
But Bush - echoing earlier complaints from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. - sought to place all the blame on Reid, D-Nev., who refused to permit votes on more than three Republican-backed amendments.
"I call on the Senate minority leader to end his blocking tactics and allow the Senate to do its work and pass a fair, effective immigration reform bill," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough earlier in the week, the immigration measure would have provided for stronger border security, regulated the future entry of foreign workers and created a complex new set of regulations for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Officials said an estimated 9 million of them, those who could show they had been in the United States for more than two years, would eventually become eligible for citizenship under the proposal.
Faced with a major setback only months before much of the Republican-controlled Congress is up for re-election, Bush sought to give life to the issue. Speaking mostly to conservatives in his party, he said border security must be improved and enforcement within the United States needs to be enhanced.
But in a nod to business leaders who support temporary worker programs that would ensure an easy supply of low-cost labor, he spoke passionately about the need to put out the welcome mat for those from other countries.
"Immigration is an emotional issue and a vitally important one," Bush said. "At its core, immigration is the sign of a confident and successful nation."
The legislation was gridlocked as lawmakers left the Capitol on Friday for a two-week break. After bewildering political maneuvering, a key vote produced only 38 senators, all Democrats, in support - 22 short of the 60 needed.
"Politics got ahead of policy on this," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., lamented.
With large public demonstrations planned over the next several days, other supporters expressed hope for its resurrection. "We have an agreement. It's not going away," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged to have legislation ready for debate in the Senate within two weeks of the lawmakers' return.
Frist, though, stopped short of a commitment to bring another immigration bill to the floor by year's end. "I intend to," he said, but added it would depend on the schedule, already crowded with other legislation.
Frist and others accused Reid of "putting a stranglehold" on the Senate. The Democratic leader has prevented votes on all but a few non-controversial amendments since debate began on the bill more than a week ago.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and other opponents expressed frustration that they were unable to gain votes on proposals to toughen enforcement or to leave immigration policy unchanged until the border had been made secure.
"It's not gone forward because there's a political advantage for Democrats not to have an immigration bill," asserted Specter.
Reid swiftly rebutted the claim: "I respect Bill Frist, but his position on this matter simply defies logic. ... He needed the courage to move forward."
Kennedy, who had seemed more eager than the Nevadan all week to find a compromise, declined several chances to offer a strong defense of his party's leader.
Republicans, including those who favored the immigration bill, decided in advance they would cast protest votes to emphasize their opposition to Reid's tactics.
Frist initially advanced a bill largely limited to border security. He then embraced Bush's concept of a broader measure including provisions relating to illegal immigrants. But in doing so, he left behind GOP conservatives, who see the measure as offering amnesty to lawbreakers.
Democrats, meanwhile, had their own divisions, principally between Kennedy and others who favored negotiating a compromise and those who were more reluctant.
In private as well as public, Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who heads the party's campaign effort, said they did not want to expose rank-and-file Democrats to votes that would force them to choose between border security and immigrant rights, only to wind up with legislation that would be eviscerated in future negotiations with the House, which has passed a bill limited to boosting border security.