Senate: Make English official

Historic vote on language provokes passions

The Senate on Thursday voted to make English the national language of the United States, a historic move that arose out of its debate of comprehensive immigration reform.

The lopsided 63-34 vote came after an impassioned debate in which the word “racist” was used on the Senate floor to describe the effort.

It was the first time in U.S. history that the Senate had passed such legislation. More negotiations on the final bill are expected, but if a “national language” measure cleared both the Senate and House and was signed by President Bush, it could mean a greater emphasis on the federal government providing its services in English.

The vote also appeared to be an important moment of reaction against multiculturalism in the U.S.

In recent weeks, large protests across the U.S. by supporters of immigrant rights have pointed to America’s increasingly polyglot future. But the Senate’s action appeared to be a reassertion of the nation’s English heritage.

The Senate’s action on Thursday raises the prospect that when Senate and House members meet to iron out differences in their immigration bills, the final product will include an “official English” provision.

“While the intent may not be there, I really believe this amendment is racist,” said, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “I think it’s directed basically at people who speak Spanish.”

Specifically, the bill says that “unless otherwise authorized or provided by law, no person has a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the U.S. or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English.”

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), a Mexican-American, asked if the amendment wouldn’t prevent senators from speaking Spanish on the Senate floor, as happened when Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales’ nomination was debated.

In addition to making English the national language, the amendment would require immigrants seeking citizenship to meet higher standards in understanding English, U.S. history and government.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) took the Inhofe amendment to task for not providing additional funding for classes in English as a second language, or ESL. “In my hometown of Boston, there are 16,000 adults on the ESL list waiting to learn English,” he said.

How some of the senators voted

The 63-34 vote declaring English the national language:

YES: Lugar (R-Ind.), McCain (R-Ariz.)

NO: Akaka (D-Hawaii), Bayh (D-Ind.), Clinton (D-N.Y.), Levin (D-Mich.), Lieberman (D-Ct.), Menendez (D-N.JStabenow (D-Mich.)