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Democrats block Republican bill to defund sanctuary cities

In a 54-45 vote along party lines, Republicans failed to clear a procedural hurdle in targeting cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Senate Democrats stonewalled a bill on Tuesday that would have stripped funding to so-called sanctuary cities and established stiff prison sentences to certain undocumented immigrants. The action comes as a major roadblock in the GOP crusade to tighten enforcement on immigration laws. 

In a 54-45 vote largely along party lines, Republicans failed to clear a procedural hurdle on legislation targeting cities that do not cooperate with federal officials in deporting undocumented immigrants from their communities.

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The bill, introduced by Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, tapped into outrage over the death of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old who was fatally shot in San Francisco this past summer. An undocumented immigrant with five deportations and seven felony convictions on his record was later arrested and charged in the shooting. The incident served as a new flashpoint in the debate over immigration, which has become a major campaign issue for the Republican presidential race. 

Three Republican 2016 hopefuls voted in favor of the bill Tuesday — Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and even Florida's Marco Rubio, who was a chief architect of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate in 2013. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, another GOP presidential candidate and member of the "Gang of Eight" that pushed for comprehensive reform, was the only senator to miss the vote. 

Cruz played a major role in championing the legislation, which included a measure that he introduced to impose a new, mandatory five-year-prison sentence on undocumented immigrants with aggravated felony convictions or who have been caught repeatedly trying to enter the United States illegally. 

"A vote 'no' is to say the next time, the next murderer like Kate Steinle's murderer comes in, we should not enforce the laws, we shouldn't have a mandatory five-year prison sentence, instead we should continue sanctuary cities that welcome and embrace them, until perhaps it is our family members that lose their lives," Cruz said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote.

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Advocacy groups had come out strong against the bill for over-zealously criminalizing undocumented immigrants. The ACLU estimated conservatively that the mandatory minimum sentences for aggravated felons would cost $3.7 billion over the next decade, and require building 12 new federal prisons. 

"The Senate was right to block this bill, which was fraught with constitutional and policy problems. It would have perpetuated unconstitutional immigration detainer practices and expanded costly mandatory minimums," Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel, said in a statement.