WASHINGTON – The White House took both sides in a dispute over English being the national language Friday as a broad immigration bill moved toward a final Senate vote next week with one conservative predicting it will never become law.
Bush's support for the dueling sides doesn't stray from his long-held view on learning English, said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
"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."
The Senate on Thursday approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., that would declare English the national language. But it also approved an alternative proposal sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., designating English the nation's "common and unifying language." Before the vote on the alternative, Inhofe warned his colleagues, "You can't have it both ways."
The White House seemed to. "We have supported both of these," Snow said of the two amendments.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, speaking Friday in Houston, added to the confusion.
"The president has never supported making English the national language," Gonzales said, adding, "I don't see the need to have legislation or a law that says English is going to be the national language."
As governor of Texas and a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush supported bilingual education programs. He sprinkles Spanish into his presidential speeches and has released political commercials in Spanish. But he also has said the national anthem should be sung in English.
The president plans to address immigration reform in his weekly radio address Saturday. He has generally favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a guest worker program that would bring more foreigners to the U.S. to fill jobs. Both are central elements of the bill before the Senate.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an ardent opponent of the bill conceded Friday it is likely to pass next week. "The Senate should be ashamed of itself," he said. But he also predicted to reporters that it won't become law unless House and Senate negotiators rewrite it.
The adoption of Inhofe's amendment drew a heated protest Friday from Latinos.
John Trasvina, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the amendment could be misinterpreted and lead to a cutback in services for those not proficient in English.
"Latinos don't need a law passed to say we ought to learn English. There are long waiting lists for adult English classes," Trasvina said. "It's false patriotism to pass an amendment to say you ought to learn English and not fulfill your responsibility of providing the opportunities."
New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, the only Republican to reject the Inhofe proposal, said the country should "move beyond the notion that English, and English only, will ensure the future of the United States."