WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Saturday doomed an effort that would have given hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants a path to legal status if they enrolled in college or joined the military.

Sponsors of the Dream Act fell five votes short of the 60 they needed to break through largely GOP opposition and win its enactment before Republicans take over the House and narrow Democrats’ majority in the Senate next month.

President Obama called the vote “incredibly disappointing.”

“A minority of senators prevented the Senate from doing what most Americans understand is best for the country,” Obama said. “There was simply no reason not to pass this important legislation.”

Dozens of immigrants wearing graduation mortarboards watched from the Senate’s visitors gallery, disappointment on their faces, as the 55-41 vote was announced.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, voted against the bill. Snowe and Collins were seen as pivotal votes.

The bill would have allowed undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children to gain legal permanent residency and citizenship if they meet certain conditions, such as attending college or serving in the military.

In a phone call with the president, Collins vowed to work with him to write what she called “a better bill” next year.

“I do believe there is a group of people in this country who do need to be treated differently, because they were brought to this country illegally as very young children through no decision of their own. I told him I am willing to try to work on a solution next year,” she said Saturday afternoon.

Saturday’s vote left uncertain the status of Selvin Arevalo, 25, of Portland, a youth leader at the Iglesia Pentecostal El Sinai.

Arevalo, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 14, was detained for seven months earlier this year after he fled from the scene of a minor traffic accident. He was released on bail last month after legal efforts and a series of demonstrations and rallies.

Despite having been freed, Arevalo lost his appeal for asylum and faced deportation Saturday. His status was unclear Saturday night.

“This is a dark day in America,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. “The Senate has … thrown under the bus the lives and hard work of thousands and thousands of students who love this country like their own home, and, in fact, they have no other home.”

Hispanic activists and immigrant advocates had looked to the bill as a down payment on what they had hoped would be broader action by Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to give the nation’s 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants a chance at legal status.

It targeted the most sympathetic of the millions of illegal immigrants — those brought to the United States as children, who in many cases consider themselves American, speak English and have no ties to or family in their native countries.

“They stand in the classrooms and pledge allegiance to our flag,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the bill’s chief sponsor. “This is the only country they have ever known.”

Critics called the bill a backdoor grant of amnesty that would encourage more foreigners to sneak into the United States in hopes of being legalized eventually.

“Treating the symptoms of the problem might make us feel better … but it can allow the underlying problem to metastasize,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening at our border.”

Democrats’ determination to vote on the bill before year’s end reflected the party’s efforts to satisfy Hispanic groups whose backing has been critical in recent elections and will be again in 2012. They said they’ll try again in the next Congress, despite the larger GOP presence.

Collins said the version up for vote on Saturday was flawed in at least two areas.

“One, it did not require the young person who is in this country to have a clean criminal record in order to take advantage of the programs that the Dream Act would establish. In fact, one could have been convicted of three misdemeanors and still qualify. That just did not make sense to me. It seems to me, the people you want to try to help are people with no criminal record at all.”

She also objected to a provision in the bill that would have allowed immigrants who earn legal residency to bring family members from their native country to the United States.

“The whole idea is to take care of this unique group who came to this country through no decision of their own, because they were children at the time. To broaden that, to allow them to bring other immigrants to this country, doesn’t seem to me to be the right approach,” Collins said. 

— Staff Writer Bob Keyes contributed to this report.