Democrats wisely sidestepped a showdown this week on legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for thousands of children brought to this country illegally.

They didn't have the votes. Although they hope to revisit the issue before Congress recesses for the holidays, it's doubtful that enough Republican support can be gained to save the Dream Act.

The House passed its version of the bill, but it failed in the Senate. Unfortunately, that's where legislation to end the military's ban on gays serving their country openly also came to a screeching halt.

Given the inability of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, it should have taken advantage of the opportunity to address at least one aspect of that worthy goal.

The Dream Act attempts to rectify the plight of about 800,000 young people mired in legal limbo through no fault of their own. They are not responsible for their illegal status, but must bear the consequences of decisions made by their parents.

Without a change in the law, these young people cannot obtain jobs legally, get college loans, or serve in the military. In other words, they are denied pursuit of the American dream that their classmates and friends born in this country may seek.

Critics have described the Dream Act as an amnesty bill for lawbreakers. But the bipartisan bill has a strict focus on motivated youngsters who want to attend college or enlist in the military.

The legislation specifically applies to children brought to the United States illegally before the age of 16. They must have lived in this country for at least five years and have a high-school diploma or its equivalent.

Congress needs to address the status of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Passing the Dream Act would be an important step toward tackling that bigger issue.