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Weaselly Theater On Senate Immigration Vote

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I want to tell you a story about the shifty way that things sometimes work in the United States Senate and how much slips under the radar of a corporate media far more interested in Paris Hilton's jail-induced crying jag than informing Americans on how their government actually operates. We saw a tsunami of amendments to the immigration-reform bill that died in the Senate last week -- when Democrats were unable to overcome a Republican blockade of the measure -- and one bill that many casual observers missed was offered by James "Ice-Age" Inhofe (R-OK) who once again wasted Senate time by pushing a bill to make English the "officially language" of the United States. First things first: Inhofe is a true waste of oxygen in the Senate. When he's not denying the existence of climate change and stopping just short of wearing a sandwich-board decrying global warming as a liberal plot, he's looking for new and improved ways to divide the country over whatever nonsensical issue his short attention span has momentarily hooked into. So the fact that he offered S.Amdt 1151 to "declare English as the national language of the Government of the United States" should not shock anyone -- in fact, he's offered the same measure in the past. And it probably won't surprise some of you to find that offsetting legislation -- where one bill can immediately negate another -- is sometimes brought to a vote on the Senate floor. It happens a lot when one party offers a bill and the other proposes one of their own to kill it or neutralize the effect the opposition's legislation would have. That's what happened last week, when Inhofe brought forward his cracker-barrel bill that would make it difficult for people for whom English is a second language to understand critical government forms like court documents and Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) proposed his own measure that would totally neuter the English-only bill if it should pass. Inhofe realized this and took to the Senate floor to yell like a stuck pig. "What I am going to say now, though, is very significant because if you vote for the Inhofe amendment when it comes up tonight, then vote for the Salazar amendment, you are essentially saying you are gutting the Inhofe amendment and you do not want English to be the official or the national language of the United States of America," said Inhofe on Wednesday. " I am just saying to you, as my friends out here, do not vote for both of us because if you vote for both of us, you are voting to make English the official language, and then, in the very next vote, you are taking it away and reinstating the original language in the bill." "So I hope no one is going to think it is going to go unnoticed if anyone votes for my amendment and then votes to kill the amendment they just supported. That is what is going to happen tonight." Here's where it got interesting and, as shocked as I am to be typing this, Inhofe had a point. Salazar's S.Amdt. 1384 basically reinforced the executive order signed by Bill Clinton that allowed for government documents to be printed in other languages depending on regional demographics -- and that was already in the broader immigration bill being considered last week -- and put that language right back into the immigration bill in case Ice-Age Inhofe's amendment passed. While calling English proficiency "a keystone to success" in America, Salazar declared that "it is important to make sure people who have limited English proficiency receive the kinds of services so they can understand what is going on in terms of the interface between the Government and themselves." "This [Inhofe's] amendment is nothing but a divisive amendment," Salazar concluded. And Ted Kennedy (D-MA) jumped in to point out that Republicans are very fast to make life tough on Americans who don't speak English that well, but are also completely unwilling to provide funding to help foster greater English proficiency. "I am disappointed in the Inhofe amendment because the Inhofe amendment doesn't add one nickel, it doesn't add 1 hour for those who want to learn English," said Kennedy last week. "To learn English in my home city of Boston, MA, immigrants have to wait 3 years in order to gain admission to a class to learn English. There are long waits in all parts of the country. If we had some effort to try and provide the opportunity for those who do not know English to learn English, I think we would be much better off." But Inhofe was only correct to the extent that he was calling on his colleagues to either vote for his lame-brained bill or Salazar's -- but to have the guts to not vote for both to cover their political butts. This was obviously a tough call for some Senators who clearly didn't want to see a grainy, unflattering picture of them in their next opponent's television-ad arsenal with an announcer sternly saying "In 2007, Senator ______ said that English should not be the official language of the United States of America." So if everyone who really thought Inhofe's amendment was a load of crap had voted against it, the unnecessary bill might have failed. Instead, it passed 64-33. But then, as Inhofe warned, the Salazar bill, that was only proposed to kill his legislation, also passed, by a vote of 58-39. How did two bills that effectively nullified each other both pass? Simple. There be weasels among us. The following Senators voted for Inhofe's bill -- presumably so nobody could ever say they hate the English language and all who speak it -- and then turned right around to vote for Salazar's bill to kill Inhofe's: Democrats:
  • Baucus (D-MT)
  • Cardin (D-MD)
  • Carper (D-DE)
  • Conrad (D-ND)
  • Dorgan (D-ND)
  • Klobuchar (D-MN)
  • Landrieu (D-LA)
  • Lincoln (D-AR)
  • McCaskill (D-MO)
  • Mikulski (D-MD)
  • Nelson (D-FL)
  • Nelson (D-NE)
  • Tester (D-MT)
  • Webb (D-VA)
  • Wyden (D-OR)
  • Bennett (R-UT)
  • Brownback (R-KS)
  • Coleman (R-MN)
  • Collins (R-ME)
  • Hagel (R-NE)
  • Lugar (R-IN)
  • Murkowski (R-AK)
  • Snowe (R-ME)
  • Specter (R-PA)
  • Warner (R-VA)
Now, I'm not saying that each of these Senators is a weasel -- OK, Ben Nelson of Nebraska is a weasel's weasel -- but these offsetting votes, while making cold, hard political sense, don't exactly show a ton of backbone or conviction. Certainly, people like Landrieu, Coleman and Collins know they have tough reelection fights coming up in 2008 and they would rather not face the narrative of them being "against" English. But what's the deal with newly-elected Democrats like Amy Klobuchar, Ben Cardin and Jon Tester? Do they really want to align themselves with the bad element who cosponsored Inhofe's amendment, like those noted humanitarians Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Judd Gregg (R-NH)? If they want to stand with the likes of those GOP stalwarts, they should just do it -- not vote for Inhofe's latest goofy idea before they turn around and vote against it. But, while some of these Senators may be guilty of a lapse in political courage, Inhofe showed that he can always top them. Right after the voting was done, Inhofe's office issued a press release praising the passage of his amendment by a "historic vote" but failing to mention that his victory had a lifespan that could be measured with an egg timer. Maybe they should print the Congressional Record in whatever language Senator Inhofe speaks. You can read more from Bob at
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Bob Geiger is a writer, activist and Democratic operative in Westchester County, NY.
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