WASHINGTON -- English would be declared the "national language" of the United States under a measure the Senate approved yesterday, a largely symbolic move that supporters said would promote unity and encourage assimilation by immigrants.
The measure would not reverse current government practices of providing some materials and services - including voting ballots - in other languages. But it would establish that people have no right or entitlement to ask government officials to provide services or materials in other languages, unless that is authorized by law.
Minutes after adding the provision to the immigration bill it is debating, the Senate passed a second amendment with softer phrasing. It declared English the country's "common and unifying" language and would ensure that "existing rights" under which the government provides bilingual services and assistance are not diminished in any way.
Lawmakers said negotiations with the House would determine which of the two measures remains in a final bill overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
The debate over the English-language issue dominated yesterday's proceedings and frequently grew heated. Proponents of the tougher amendment argued that it was needed to unite the country, while opponents insisted it would cause greater division.
The dispute echoed similar debates that have occurred for more than a decade, not only in Congress but at the state and local levels. Various statues declaring English the nation's official language have been passed by 27 states.
The Senate's debate reflected growing concerns among many lawmakers about the challenge of governing a country where an estimated 47 million people speak a language other than English at home.
"We are not a nation based on race," Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said in support of the "national language" amendment. "We are a fragile idea based on a few common principles and our national common language."
But some interpreted the amendment as an attack on Latinos. And in a chamber that prides itself on civility, that concern prompted unusually harsh language.
"I believe this amendment is racist," Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told Sen. James M. Inhofe, a Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the measure. "I think it's directed basically to people who speak Spanish."
Inhofe, who speaks Spanish, strongly denied the charge.