It was a dismal day's work in the U.S. Senate Wednesday, when lawmakers, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, shot down the DREAM Act.

The bill would have given some high-performing children of illegal immigrants a chance for legal status if they had clean records, had spent more than five years in the United States and attended college or served in the military.

Even after the divisive effort to reform U.S. immigration policy, the DREAM Act inspired substantial bipartisan support in Congress. That's because it neither rewarded, or even applied to, immigrants who chose to come here illegally. The measure singled out their children, brought here without their say, who nevertheless aspired to college and military service.

By the time the measure appeared before the Senate last week, it had lost even a provision allowing these youngsters in-state tuition.

Simply, the bill tested lawmakers' ability to rationally address a small, blameless and high-achieving fraction of young people caught up in our chaotic immigration status quo.

The failures in that test glared harshly. There was the Bush White House, which failed to rouse support for comprehensive reform, but rallied just in time to undercut a much narrower bill that was much like its own past proposals.

Attacking the DREAM Act Wednesday morning, the White House Office of Management and Budget stated, ”Any resolution of (the students') status … must be careful not to provide incentives for recurrence of the illegal conduct that has brought the nation to this point.”

The DREAM Act couldn't incentivize any illegal conduct. Eligibility for it would have ended five years before the bill's passage.

The vote also exposed the full depth of U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo's pension for bullying. When immigrant students joined Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at a news conference Tuesday, Tancredo called on immigration agents to perform a raid. (The demand was ignored, and the students all had legal status, anyway).

And Cornyn lawmaker in one of the 13 states that have a partial version of the DREAM Act voted against the national form, which would have given students legal status. His objection? Loopholes such as the fact that DREAM Act students didn't have to graduate from college before receiving legal status.

But this excuse fails the test of plausibility. He could easily have worked behind the scenes to improve the bill, which is what Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did.

Hutchison, who voted for the DREAM Act, quietly secured a commitment to tailor it later to satisfy Republican concerns. She wanted to ensure the undocumented students could not jump ahead of legal immigrants in processing their green cards.

”(I)t's a situation that's just not of the students' making, and they're the young people we want in our workforce,” she explained later in a telephone conference. Hutchison's conduct reflected both a moral center and a practical refusal to waste human capital. It was an exemplar of good leadership that too many of her colleagues failed to equal.