WASHINGTON — Senators voted late Wednesday to make English the nation's official language as they headed for a showdown on a major immigration bill.
With a vote of 64-33, lawmakers approved an amendment to the bill by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., that would establish English as the national language of the United States. The measure also says that no person has a right to have the government act in another tongue unless specifically stated by law.
Inhofe said that a great majority of Americans and a majority of Hispanics favor making English the national language, according to various polls.
Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said that the amendment was divisive and would hurt people without English proficiency, making it difficult for them to receive government services, including those related to public health and safety. He also said each state should be able to decide whether it wants to establish English as its official language.
Salazar offered an alternative amendment that states that English is the common language of the United States and that the government "shall preserve and enhance" the role of English, but would not establish a national tongue. That amendment passed 58-39.
If the Senate bill passes, lawmakers will need to consider both English amendments should they negotiate a final bill with the House, which has yet to pass an immigration bill this year.
Earlier Wednesday, the chamber narrowly rejected an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have barred certain felons – including people who have ignored deportation orders – from any chance at legalization.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the lead Democratic sponsor of the measure, said the Cornyn amendment would have undermined the core of the bill by banning hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from the plan, including many who have used false documents to work in the United States.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called Cornyn's amendment "a stealth Trojan horse" and "nothing short of an attempt to kill the bill."
Cornyn said that his measure – which failed 51-46 – would have improved the overall legislation and restored the rule of law in the immigration system.
"We should not allow a path to legalization and citizenship to those who have openly defied our courts," he said.
The Senate voted 66-32 to pass an alternative amendment by Kennedy that includes measures similar to Cornyn's bill, such as barring certain sex offenders, drunk drivers and members of terrorist organizations from the legalization plan. But it did not ban "absconders" who have ignored deportation orders. There are more than 600,000 "absconders" in the United States, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Senators also defeated a proposal by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., that would have changed the deadline date for consideration of pending green card applications from May 1, 2005, to Jan. 1, 2007. The measure was defeated through a procedural move that avoided a vote on the amendment. The Menendez amendment was seen by proponents of the bill as a deal breaker.
During the day-long debate, Republicans bitterly complained about a decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to force a "cloture" vote Thursday that would limit debate on the bill.
GOP lawmakers said they need more time to offer amendments and try to change the important legislation.
The cloture requires 60 votes to pass, which means several Republicans would have to join Democrats to approve it. If Republicans block the vote, Reid has threatened to pull the immigration bill from the floor.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it would be "outrageous" for Reid to pull the bill.
"It will be a colossal failure," he said. "The U.S. Senate will be the laughingstock of the country."
Also on Wednesday, the Senate voted 57-39 to approve another Cornyn amendment that would allow the Citizenship and Immigration Services to share information from illegal immigrant applications for visas with other government and law enforcement agencies.
Cornyn said the amendment could help authorities catch criminals and terrorists who abuse the immigration system.
"Failure to allow law enforcement to connect the dots is a deadly mistake," he said.
But Kennedy said that illegal immigrants wouldn't "come out of the shadows" if they feared the information could be used to deport them.
The chamber also voted on several other amendments, including one that would bar illegal immigrants who obtain the initial "Z-visa" from receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit. That proposal was approved 56-41.
The overall legislation would allow illegal immigrants to register fairly quickly for a "Z-visa" which would let them stay and work in the United States. After at least eight years, the immigrants could apply for permanent legal residency and eventual citizenship if they pay fines and meet other requirements. The bill would also create a temporary worker program for 200,000 foreign laborers each year.
The legalization and guest worker provisions would not take effect until certain security measures were in place, including adding thousands of new Border Patrol agents.
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