WASHINGTON Senators on Thursday clashed over whether killing a U.S. immigration overhaul would fuel the public's scorn for Congress, which already has an approval rating below that of President George W. Bush.
Backers and opponents of the immigration plan butted heads for an hour in the normally congenial Senate chamber and ended up casting aside for now a solution to one of America's most pressing problems.
One question after the death of the comprehensive plan was whether it would do more damage to the reputation of Congress or mark a step toward improving it.
A Newsweek poll this month put Congress' job approval at 25 percent, lower than Bush, whose rating has hovered around 30 percent in recent weeks. Anger over Iraq is paramount but analysts also say Americans in general are in a negative mood.
For opponents of the immigration overhaul, most of them Republicans who broke with Bush on the issue, stopping the immigration plan was important to restoring American confidence in Congress and the federal government.
"This immigration bill has become a war between the American people and their government," said South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. "It's a crisis of confidence between what the American people believe our government is and should be, and what it is to them now and what they perceive it to be."
'WE DESERVE IT'
But for backers of the bill, passage of an immigration plan was important to showing Americans that Congress can do something about the fate of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
"We're at 20 percent and we deserve it," said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Americans have a low opinion of Congress, he said, because "we don't seem to do the things we need to do. We're too concerned about us, and not them."
Both sides clearly were feeling the heat from organized campaigns by opponents who shouted out their worries on conservative talk radio programs that the bill would grant amnesty to millions of immigrants.
Presidential campaign politics came into play in the vote over the issue. The difficulty of the immigration dispute was best reflected in how one candidate, Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, handled it.
Brownback first voted for closing off debate on the bill, which would have kept it alive, but when it became clear minutes later that the legislation was going to die, he switched his vote.
He looked a bit sheepish afterward.
The five other senators running for president stuck to their positions in favor of the legislation: Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrats Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware.
While the immigration bill appears dead for now, it is likely to live on in the presidential campaign.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy gave what could be some of his party's talking points for debating the issue on the campaign trail, comparing it to the historic battle over civil rights in the 1960s.
"Congress was created to muster political will," Kennedy said. "Today we didn't, but tomorrow we will."