Senate debates making English national language
Associated Press
May. 19, 2006

WASHINGTON- Whether English is America's "national language" or its national "common and unifying language" was a question dominating the Senate immigration debate

The Senate first voted 63-34 to make English the national language after lawmakers who led the effort said it would promote national unity.

But critics argued the move would prevent limited English speakers from getting language assistance required by an executive order signed by President Clinton. So the Senate then voted 58-39 on saying that English is the nation's "common and unifying language." advertisement Supporters agreed that both measures are largely symbolic.

"We are trying to make an assimilation statement," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of two dozen senators who voted Thursday for both proposals.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that President Bush supports both measures.

"What the president has said all along is that he wants to make sure that people who become American citizens have a command of the English language,"
Snow said. "It's as simple as that."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., disputed charges that making English the national language was racist or aimed at Spanish speakers. Eleven Democrats joined Republicans in voting for his measure.

The provision makes exceptions for any language assistance already guaranteed by law, such as bilingual ballots required under the Voting Rights Act or court interpreters. It also requires immigrants seeking citizenship to demonstrate a "sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in every day life."

The Homeland Security Department is in the midst of redesigning the citizenship test and some groups have been concerned about efforts to make the test more difficult.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo, offered the alternative. The only Republican to vote solely for Salazar's "common and unifying" language option was Sen.
Pete Domenici of New Mexico, whose home state's constitution prohibits discrimination on basis of inability to speak, read or write English or Spanish.

Both provisions will be included in an immigration bill the Senate is expected to pass and send to conference with the House, where differences will be resolved.

Bush, who often peppers his speeches with Spanish words and phrases, had little to say about the Senate votes while visiting the Arizona-Mexico border. "The Senate needs to get the bill out," the president said.

Bush toured an unfortified section of the border in the Arizona desert Thursday, where he endorsed using fences and other barriers to cut down on illegal crossings. The Senate on Wednesday voted to put 370 miles of fences on the border.

Bush's border visit was part of his efforts to win over conservatives balking at his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a new guest worker program.

Bush asked Congress for $1.9 billion Thursday to pay for 1,000 Border Patrol agents and the temporary deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to states along the Mexican border.

His request was not warmly welcomed by some key senators.

Sen. Judd Gregg, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, delayed a vote on Bush's promotion of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman to White House budget director to show his displeasure. He said Bush's request calls for using money for proposed for border security equipment to pay for operational exercises.

Sen. Robert Byrd, the Senate Appropriations Committee's top Democrat, complained that he had offered amendments providing for border security nine times since 2002, only to have the Bush administration reject them as extraneous spending or expanding the size of government.

"If we had spent that money beginning in 2002, we would not be calling on the National Guard today," Byrd said.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers supporting the immigration measure continued to hold through the week. The group was able to reverse an amendment that denied temporary workers the ability to petition on their own for legal permanent residency, a step to citizenship.

Bill supporters restored the self-petitioning with the condition the federal government certifies American workers were unavailable to fill the jobs held or sought by the temporary workers.