The immigration-reform bill was supposed to be a defining moment for the old guard.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy could establish a new civil rights legacy to rival his brothers’; Sen. John McCain could show leadership and accomplishment by standing up to his party’s base; and President Bush could secure a major domestic achievement for his second term.
Instead, the young guns — a small, wily group of junior Republican senators, most of them with less than a full term in the upper chamber — sent the bill into a tailspin, tying Democratic leaders into legislative knots and earning enough opposition among senators to block the Senate bill, culminating in yesterday’s vote to kill the measure.
“Those of us who have been on the campaign trail in the last couple of years have had to talk about immigration reform and we’ve campaigned — [Sen. David] Vitter made campaign promises, I made campaign promises — we should not reward those who came here illegally with a path to citizenship,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican.
“These issues are fresh in our minds, and I think we also come in from the House with the knowledge that just going along isn’t going to make anything happen, and we need to get out and fight for things. We’re not beaten down yet, we’re willing to fight for something,” he said.
In the process they stood toe-to-toe with Mr. Bush and their own party’s leaders and, buoyed by an outpouring of support from voters, prevailed.
“The president’s major initiatives — No Child Left Behind started with Kennedy and a few Republicans; the prescription drug bill was Kennedy and a few Republicans. And so he was going back to his standby of Kennedy and a few Republicans,” Mr. DeMint said. “The idea was to marginalize the conservatives. And we would have been railroaded, run over, completely flat, if the American people hadn’t gotten so mad about this.”
They went up against the full array of Senate tools, including blocking amendments, denying floor time and even a rarely used technique called the “clay pigeon” — named after the target in skeet shooting, because it allows its author to launch a complicated amendment and then split it into many different parts.
Mr. DeMint, Mr. Vitter of Louisiana and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, all of them in the class of 2004, spent hours camped on the Senate floor protecting their rights, objecting to Democratic requests and generally making life difficult for Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
They were often joined by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican from the class of 2002, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who completes his second term next year.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and another member of the class of 2004 who fought the bill, said the first-termers are coming of age.
“There’s a steep learning curve here in the Senate and we’re getting more and more familiarized all the time with what those powers are and how we can use them, and you saw a demonstration of that,” he said.
He also said while they aren’t looking to make a name as obstructionists, senators should be ready for a fight if leaders try “ramming something down people’s throats.”
“It’s not going to be the old way of doing business. This is a group that you’re going to have to deal with, you’re going to have to reckon with, and going along to get along probably isn’t going to be the M.O.,” he said.
Democrats were deflated by the defeat.
“The big winner today was obstruction,” Mr. Reid said.
Yesterday afternoon Mr. DeMint turned his attention to pork-barrel spending, holding up Democrats’ effort to form a House-Senate conference on an ethics bill without assurances from the Democrats they won’t water down rules on earmarks that the Senate has already approved.
Democrats were enraged, accusing Republicans of trying to hold up the chamber.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and, like Mr. DeMint, Mr. Vitter and Mr. Thune, a former House member, said the Republicans were abusing their newfound freedoms in the Senate.
“Some people come over here from the House, and they decide that they’re going to just use the rules of the Senate to call attention to what they think is the issue of the day,” she said.
Throughout the debate this week the Republicans were without the aid of their own leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican ducked the fight, not speaking on the floor at all Wednesday and waiting until late afternoon yesterday, long after the debate had ended, to explain himself.
But he never explained his own vote yesterday to block the bill, after supporting it earlier this week, and after having said repeatedly it was a better bill than last year’s — a bill he voted for.
“I had hoped for a bipartisan accomplishment and what we got was a bipartisan defeat,” he said.