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Senate Gives English A Nod

Immigration rights demonstrators hold a U.S. flag aloft during a march along Wilshire Boulevard, Monday, May 1, 2006, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Stefano Paltera)
AP Photo/Stefano Paltera
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 enacted under President Clinton. So the Senate also voted 58-39 to make English the nation's "common and unifying language." As CBS News correspondent Joie Chen reports, the Senate bill would not change things too much, though it gets at the core of the fight over immigrant rights.

"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 English 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 voted for his measure.

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.

According to a new CBS News poll, immigration now ranks among the top issues when Americans are asked to volunteer the most important problem facing the country; it trails only the war in Iraq and the economy and jobs. Twelve percent mention immigration the highest ever in the CBS News Poll.

Read the full CBS News poll (.pdf)
President 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.

Mr. 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.

Earlier, Bush spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that the White House supported the Senate measure, which would build 370 miles of fence in areas "most often used by smugglers and illegal aliens" as determined by federal officials.

"We don't think you fence off the entire border," Snow said aboard Air Force One en route to the inspection visit. But, he added, "there are places when fences are appropriate."

When Mr. Bush was asked whether he supports the House or Senate fencing proposal, he was not as direct as his spokesman. "Whatever works," Mr. Bush told Fox. "And that's why I'm down here talking to these commanders on the ground to find out exactly what they need to get the job done."

Despite his uncertain stance on the fence issue, most Americans say in the CBS News poll that they approve of the immigration reform proposals the president outlined in a nationally televised address earlier this week.