By Teri Weaver on March 17, 2014 at 7:15 PM, updated March 17, 2014 at 7:22 PM
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A proposal to expand state-funded tuition assistance to undocumented college students failed by two votes in the New York State Senate today.
The Senate vote likely ends, for this year, the debate on New York's Dream Act, which would have expanded the state's Tuition Assistance Program to include undocumented students.
But the vote marks a key political maneuver for the small group of breakaway Democrats - including Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida - who have faced criticism for joining with Senate Republicans to run the chamber. Some have said the partnership has jeopardized action on more traditional Democratic issues, including changing the state's abortion laws, public financing of political campaigns and immigration reform.
Today, it was the Independent Democratic Conference that pushed the Dream Act to the floor.
In explaining his support for the Dream Act, Valesky praised IDC Leader Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, and Republican Senate Leader Sen. Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, for agreeing to bring the controversial bill to the floor.
The move, Valesky said, shows "perhaps the strongest day of this coalition yet."
The bill failed 30-29. To pass, 32 votes are needed. Currently, two seats are vacant in the Senate, and two Republican senators missed the vote.
That left just 59 senators in the chamber. In order to pass, the Democrats needed two of the 28 Republicans to jump ranks. That didn't happen. Instead, two Democratic senators voted against the bill.
"Had they voted yes, it would have passed," Valesky said after the vote, rejecting the criticism that it's the IDC holding up more progressive legislation. All five IDC members voted for the bill.
Valesky was the only Central New York senator who supported the bill. Those opposing it included Sens. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse; Joseph Griffo, R-Rome; Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette; James Seward, R-Milford; and Patty Ritchie, R-Oswegatchie.
It's unclear, however, whether today's vote signals that more controversial bills are headed for the Senate floor. Another looming issue - public financing of campaigns - is more likely to become a part of the final budget bills because of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's support rather than the internal politics of the Senate, Valesky said.
Floor leaders rarely allow a bill for a vote unless passage is assured. Only one bill failed in a Senate floor vote in 2011 and 2012, according to a legislative analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. In the Assembly, a bill hasn't failed a floor vote since 2004.
Today, many senators arguing for the bill reminded critics the Dream Act vote came on St. Patrick's Day, an annual celebration of Irish heritage.
"If you come here, we will make a path for you for one of the best lives you can have for you and your children," said Sen. Malcolm Smith, a former IDC member facing indictment on corruption charges.
"The key to overcoming the obstacles was education," said Sen. Jose Serrano, a Democrat who talked about the "wave after wave of immigrant communities" that make up his New York City district.
Opponents argued the proposal would use state taxpayer money to help families not following immigration laws instead of helping struggling taxpayers afford college.
"This has nothing to do about grandparents," said Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo. "Our grandparents went through a naturalization process and came here legally."
The Assembly passed the bill in February.