Bush supports Senate English language proposals

The Senate on Thursday first voted 63-34 to make English the national language of the United States 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 former President Bill Clinton. So the Senate then voted 58-39 on saying that English is the U.S.'s "common and unifying language."

Supporters agreed that both measures in the immigration bill currently under debate are largely symbolic. The bill has to be reconciled with a version passed by the House of Representatives before Bush signs it into law, probably by the end of the year.

Sen. Jim Inhofe 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, the AP reports.

Sen. Ken Salazar 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.