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Senate vote endorses English as the 'national language'

Bill's effects on multilingual services unclear

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted yesterday to make English the ''national language" of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.

The measure, approved by a vote of 63 to 34, directs the government to ''preserve and enhance" the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services to be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances, and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.

Only nine Senate Democrats voted for the amendment; one Republican, Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, voted against it.

The English-language debate has roiled American politics for decades, and in some quarters, has been as controversial and important as the long-debated amendment to ban flag burning.

The impact of the new Senate language amendment was unclear even after its passage. The language negating claims to multilingual services appears straightforward. It also sets requirements that immigrants seeking US citizenship know the English language and US history. The amendment would require more thorough testing to demonstrate English-language proficiency and knowledge of US history and customs like the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem.

But its author, Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, made two last-minute changes that some opponents said would water down its effect significantly. By stipulating that the English-only mandates could not negate existing laws, Inhofe spared current ordinances that allow bilingual education or multilingual ballots. And by changing the amendment to label English the ''national language" rather than the ''official language" of the country, Inhofe may have lessened its symbolic power.

''In my view, we had it watered down enough to make it acceptable," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, one of the chief architects of the Senate immigration bill.

But proimmigration groups and some Democrats said the amendment would obliterate executive orders issued by President Clinton that mandated the provision of multilingual services and communications by a variety of federal agencies, and could undermine court orders, agency regulations, civil service guidances, and state and local ordinances that provide multilingual services.

Further complicating the picture, moments after approving the Inhofe amendment, the Senate voted 58 to 39 to approve a competing amendment by Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, declaring English the ''common unifying language of the United States" but mandating that nothing in that declaration ''shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services.

Senators said the conflict will have to be worked out in negotiations with the House.

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