WASHINGTON -- Locked in election year trench warfare, the Senate on Tuesday failed to move forward with an annual defense bill that had become a battleground for controversial immigration and gay rights issues.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada accused Republicans of "playing politics" as they voted en masse, with two Democratic defectors, to block his efforts to include an amendment to extend a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children, if they serve in the military or attend college for two years.
Also in the legislation was repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law that forbids gays from serving openly in the military.
Before the vote, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted Democratic leaders for what he described as a "cynical act" of political chicanery. He said the immigration and gay rights issues were proposed merely "to galvanize and energize" Democratic voters in the lead-up to November's general elections.
"It is a cynical act for political reasons," McCain said, adding Democrats weren't planning to finish debate on the bill until after the midterm elections.
Campaign handicappers are predicting that Republicans will gain seats in the Senate this fall, narrowing -- and potentially overcoming -- the 59-41 advantage now held by Democrats. That would make it even more difficult to pass legislation favored by traditional Democratic constituencies.
The Senate voted 56-43 on a procedural motion on the defense bill, falling four votes short of the 60 needed to move it forward to debate. No Republicans supported it. Arkansas Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor opposed it.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted to block the bill. An aide said it was because Democrats were limiting Republican amendments.
"When Democrats decide to get serious, and not political, about the needs of our service men and women, Senator Ensign will vote to move forward on this bill," said spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper.
Reid said he was disappointed that Republicans "put partisan politics ahead of the best interests of the men and women who courageously defend our nation."
"They blocked the Senate from debating a bill that would give our troops the resources they need to keep America safe," he said, referring to the overall $726 billion defense policy measure. "Stopping not only funding for combat vehicles and bulletproof vests or measures to improve our military's readiness, but even a well-earned pay raise."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans would happily move forward with a defense authorization bill under a normal process without adding immigration to the mix.
"They want to use this week for a political exercise. They want to weigh this bill down with controversy in a transparent attempt to show their special interest groups that they haven't forgotten about them ahead of the election," McConnell said.
"This is not a serious exercise. It's a show," he said.
McCain said the effort to overturn the law known as "don't ask, don't tell" was premature. Top military leaders have asked Congress to wait until they complete a survey on the issue, he said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said children of illegal immigrants who serve honorably in the military should be rewarded with citizenship. Failure to allow an amendment on that issue, he said, would be "shirking our responsibilities" as senators.
Lincoln said both parties were guilty of playing politics. She said she wanted several of her own amendments included in the debate, but they were not.
"For both sides there is plenty of guilt in terms of what tactics they are trying to play," Lincoln said.
Reid said he would continue to fight for the DREAM Act, which according to the Migration Policy Institute, a self-described nonpartisan think tank, would upon enactment provide conditional legal status to 360,000 unauthorized high school graduates ages 18 to 24. Critics have called it "backdoor amnesty" for illegals.
"All we wanted to do was bring it to the floor," Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "They (Republicans) wouldn't even let us do that. They didn't have the courage to allow us to have a vote on this.
"We are going to vote on the DREAM Act," Reid declared. "The only question is when. This is fairness, that is what this is about. This is not the end of this."
The DREAM Act would allow young people to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military. It would apply to people who were younger than 16 when they arrived in the United States, have been in the country at least five years and have a diploma from a U.S. high school or the equivalent.
Several young people who would have benefited from the immigration legislation watched the vote from the gallery, some wearing graduation caps and gowns. Many sat stone-faced when the vote tally was read. A young woman dressed in a gold cap and gown wiped tears from her eyes.
As the prospects for a sweeping immigration bill looked bleak, young activists began lobbying Democrats to separate the DREAM Act from the immigration reform package and try to pass it on its own.
"I was kind of speechless. It's something that hurt, but we are not stopping. They only gave us a chance and more time to get even bigger," said Diana Banderas, who graduated from high school in May and plans to go to community college after earning the money she needs to attend.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the majority whip, said repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and passing the DREAM Act were matters of justice and fairness.
"We do not in this country hold the crimes and misdeeds of parents against their children," Durbin, D-Ill., said in reference to the DREAM Act. He has been trying to pass the legislation for about a decade.
Earlier Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he sent a letter to Reid and McConnell backing the DREAM Act.
"America is the only country they know. ... They deserve every opportunity to go further in life," Duncan said about the young immigrants who would be helped by the legislation. "Our country needs the benefits of their skills, their talent and their passion."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.