WASHINGTON —The Senate declined to move ahead with debate Wednesday on a bill that would have put certain undocumented students on a path toward citizenship.

With a 52-44 vote, the Senate did not give the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act, the 60 votes it needed to get full consideration by the Senate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, were among the 12 Republicans who voted for the Senate to move ahead with debate on the bill and get a final vote, along with 38 Democrats and two independent senators.

But eight Democrats and 36 Republicans voted against taking up the bill, with three Democrats and one Republican — Sen. John McCain of Arizona — not voting.

During floor debate Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and other supporters of the bill said it is designed to help a small group of illegal immigrants and can serve as a first step toward immigration reform. Critics of the bill continued to declare that it was nothing more than amnesty for those who have broken the law by coming to the United States illegally.

The bill would have allowed undocumented students "of good moral character" who graduate from high school or get their GED to receive the residency status needed to attend college or enlist in the military.

After two years of college or military service, the students would earn legal permanent residency, commonly known as a green card, which would put them on a path toward citizenship.

To be eligible, the undocumented students must have been in the United States for more than five years, have been under 16 years old when they first arrived and be under 30 years old when the bill becomes law.

Durbin said the only crime these children committed was listening to their parents when they said they were going to America, and they should be given a chance to stay here. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that for many of these students who came to America as toddlers or infants, this is the only home they know.

But Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that "regardless of age," any type of amnesty is a "slap in the face" to those who have come to the United States through the proper channels.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the bill puts the students on a special path to citizenship that is unfair to others.

"I do not believe we should reward illegal behavior," McConnell said.

To help illustrate his point, Durbin showed photos of three young adults who would be affected by the bill. The three students — Marie Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Costa Rican college student whose parents have been deported, Tam Tran, a 24-year old Vietnamese graduate student who came to America from Germany, and Manuel Bartsch, a college sophomore from Germany — watched from the Senate visitor's gallery.

But their presence was also a symbol of the tension that still exists over immigration issues. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., sent out a statement Tuesday calling for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to "detain any illegal aliens" who were attending a news conference Durbin held with the three students on Tuesday.

"If we can't enforce our laws inside the building where American laws are made, where can we enforce them?," Tancredo said.

Durbin said on the floor Wednesday that the students were lawfully in the United States on a temporary basis, and the Dream Act would help them remain permanently.

"His press release is an indication of how badly this debate is going in America," Durbin said. "To turn on these children and treat them as criminals is an indication of the level of emotion and in some cases bigotry and hatred that is involved in this debate." -->

Durbin acknowledged that with Congress focused on finishing its annual spending bills before leaving for the year, he is not likely to bring the measure up again this year or next.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com