WASHINGTON - The Senate moved Thursday to delay a politically charged showdown vote on the so-called Dream Act - legislation that would carve out a path to legal status for foreign-born youngsters brought to this country illegally - putting off but probably not preventing its demise.
Facing GOP objections, Democrats put aside the measure and said they would try again to advance it before year's end. But they are short of the 60 votes needed to do so, and critics in both parties quickly said they would not change their minds in the waning days of the Democratic-controlled Congress.
The bill would grant hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children a chance to gain legal status if they enroll in college or join the military.
The House passed it Wednesday night.
"This is mainly a political exercise rather than a serious attempt to deal with our broken immigration system," said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas).
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of several Democrats who have broken with their leaders to oppose the bill, said he, too, would block efforts to consider it.
In the House, just eight Republicans joined Democrats to support it, and almost 40 Democrats voted no.
In the Senate, Democrats had virtually no chance of attracting any GOP support to move the legislation; all 42 Republicans have signed a letter pledging to block action on any issue until bills to extend expiring tax cuts and fund the government are completed.
The White House said the Senate's postponement was "the right way to move forward" to get bipartisan support for the bill. Press secretary Robert Gibbs called the Dream Act "the right thing to do for our nation, our economy, and our security."
There is no indication, though, that Democrats will be able to gather the 60 votes needed for quick action on an issue as emotional and complicated as immigration.
"We have to demonstrate that we are serious about fixing our broken immigration system, we have to secure the border, we have to enforce our laws," Cornyn said, "and then I think the natural compassion of the American people will kick in, and they'll let us deal with these sympathetic situations like these kids who . . . were brought here by their parents and find themselves at a dead end."
Hispanic activists and immigrant advocates view the measure as a down payment on what they had hoped would be broader action by President Obama and Congress to give the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
Those brought to the United States as children in many cases consider themselves American, speak English, and have no ties to or family living in their native countries.
Critics denounce the bill as backdoor amnesty.
The bill would apply to illegal immigrants brought to the United States before age 16, who have been here five years and graduated from high school or gained an equivalency degree, and join the military or attend college.