By  on June 29, 2007

WASHINGTON — The Senate scuttled a bill to overhaul the immigration system Thursday, which may postpone action until after the 2008 elections.

The bill's supporters failed to get the 60 votes required to cut off debate on the legislation and advance it for final consideration and passage. Forty-six senators voted in favor of limiting debate, with 53 in opposition.

The vote was a setback for President Bush, who had made immigration reform his top domestic priority.

"Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress' failure to act on it is a disappointment," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground — it didn't work."

The bill would give citizenship to most of the estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, crack down on employers who hire them, stiffen penalties against those employers, establish a guest worker program and provide billions of dollars in additional funding for border security.

The emotionally charged issue created deep fissures among Democrats and Republicans. Many in the GOP said the bill amounted to amnesty, and it drew fire from Democrats for placing emphasis on a merit-based point system for citizenship status instead of family ties.

Despite the vote, speculation persisted about whether Senate leaders would try to revive the bill a third time this year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who pushed for the measure, said the vote "is really disheartening to me."

Retail groups lobbied aggressively against several of the bill's provisions, including mandatory electronic verification of new employees within 18 months and a reverification of the entire company workforce within three years. In addition, the bill would increase the maximum penalty for a pattern of hiring illegal workers to $75,000 per employee from $3,000 and lower the liability standard.

"At first blush, retailers will look and say, ‘Well, we're not faced with retroactive verification of 23 million employees and we're not faced with an increase in liability,'" said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation. "But I think if people look at the issue in the broader sense and the fact that we need to get our arms around this burgeoning problem with immigration, I think people may conclude that it was a shame the Senate couldn't work its will and get a final up or down vote and let people be on the record as for or against the bill."Pfister said retailers in border states would have a different reaction to the defeat as opposed to retailers in Nebraska.

"People are all over the board on this," he said.

Faith Cristol, vice president of workforce and tax at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, of which Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is a member, said, "I think our concerns were not altogether addressed so it was perhaps in retailers' best interest not to move forward."

Bruce Raynor, general director of UNITE HERE, the main apparel and textile union, said, "We've got at least 12 million undocumented workers who are honest people working hard for employers who want them and need them, and now they will have to live in fear of our government."

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