WASHINGTON – Should English be the national language? Well, the Senate thinks so, and it appears the president is happy with the idea, too.
As part of the ongoing debate on immigration reform, the Senate on Thursday voted on two amendments to make English the "national language," as well as set a "common and unifying language." The first definition was pushed by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the second by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.
In a week that the Senate also voted in support of a smaller guest-worker program and more fencing along the Southwest border, it seemed that lawmakers were on track to come to agreement on an immigration bill by the end of the month, despite vocal opponents.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., indicated there was slim chance of a vote-halting filibuster, but said he wasn't pleased with the way it's going.
"The Senate should be ashamed of itself," Sessions said.
He predicted the Senate and House wouldn't be able to come to agreement on a bill if major changes don't happen; if there's no agreement in conference committee, the bill can't become law.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee declined to say Friday whether he would vote in favor of the measure, but said, "it's certainly moving in that direction."
Frist has played a major role in making sure the legislation reached the Senate floor, although he also has voted for some of the amendments sought by the bill's foes.
Favoring a so-called "comprehensive reform" package that goes beyond just border security measures, the White House has favored a guest worker program from the get go. On Friday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush also likes the idea of making English more prominent.
Snow said the goal of Bush's immigration-reform plan is to make sure that at the end of the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, people have command of English. Snow pointed out that statistics show that people who learn the language do better at work, and have a better chance at "the American dream."
"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 told reporters. "It's as simple as that."
Bush on Thursday visited the illegal immigration hotbed of Yuma, Ariz., where he pushed his five-point plan under the banner of comprehensive immigration reform.
The president said learning English should be one of several requirements for illegal immigrants to become citizens. At the same time, the White House sent Congress a formal request for $1.9 billion to cover the costs of border-enforcement steps he announced earlier in the week, including the deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to states along the Mexican border.
"I believe that person should pay a meaningful fine, pay their taxes, learn English, prove they've worked in a job for a number of years, and then that person should be able to apply for citizenship, but would not be granted an automatic citizenship, but instead would be at the end of the citizenship line," Bush said.
According to a recent FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken April 4-5, 78 percent of Americans favored passing a law making English the official language of the United States.
With the passage of the Inhofe amendment, the Senate on Thursday decided no one has a right to federal services or communications in any language other than English, though neither amendment changes laws that already require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. It also declares that any rights of a person to services or materials in languages other than English must be stated explicitly in law.
In a largely symbolic vote that took hours of deliberation, the Senate approved the English as the "national language" bill with a vote was 63-34.
The goal of the second amendment was to soften what some perceived to be an intolerance in the Inhofe language and providing what supporters called a "diversity matters" component: It declared that English is "the common and unifying language of the United States that helps provide unity for the people of the United States." This amendment passed on a vote of 58-39.
"You can't have it both ways," said Inhofe, who wasn't in favor of the second amendment.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., spent hours shuttling between Salazar and Inhofe, telling reporters: "I have walked the length of the American border between these two guys."
Graham sought out and received legal assurances that the Inhofe amendment would not conflict with current federal law enacted by a Clinton-era executive order mandating that federal services be offered in languages other than English — such as an interpreter at a court preceding or a Spanish-language ballot. But many Democrats, including Salazar, were immovable.
Inhofe's attempt to declare English the national language was part of a campaign he said began more than a century ago. The Oklahoma Republican quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as having said that among other things, those living in the United States "must also learn one language and that language is English."
"If you've got any rights now you've still got them under this amendment" added Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Democrats disputed that, and said the proposal would curtail rights established by President Clinton to extend language assistance to individuals not proficient in English.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada went further. "I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it's directed basically to people who speak Spanish."
"It's ridiculous," Inhofe replied. "I don't think people will buy into it."
The Senate didn't, including 11 Democrats who joined 53 Republicans to support the proposal.
Salazar advanced the alternative that declared English to be a "common and unifying language."
It passed, 58-39, leaving the outcome of the symbolic debate uncertain.
While at least one major pro-guest worker group, National Council of La Raza, has come out blasting the English amendments, Snow said Friday he didn't want to respond to those concerns yet.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.