By Molly K. Hooper - 01/31/12 10:00 AM EST
Spurred by Republicans running for the White House, GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill are moving closer to a vote that would make English the official language of the United States.
Republicans believe a vote on the bipartisan measure would put the Obama administration on the defensive. President Obama voted against the effort when he served in the Senate.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an ardent illegal immigration foe who has introduced the “English Language Unity Act of 2011,” sees a clear policy and political opportunity for his party.
“It’s one of those 84 percent [approval] issues. I don’t know what the [Republican] leaders have up on the board that is more popular than official English,” King said in an interview with The Hill.
King’s measure has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Judiciary panel, told The Hill: “I support efforts to make English the official language and may consider bringing up the issue in the House Judiciary Committee down the road.”
King’s bill, which has 106 co-sponsors, including Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.), would require official functions of the United States to be conducted in English. It would also establish the English language as a requirement for naturalization.
It is unclear whether Smith will move King’s bill or another version.
After Republicans won control of the House in 2010, King was passed over for chairmanship of the Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration.
Leaders gave the gavel to Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), who has announced his intention not to run for reelection. Some Republicans are wary of the effect of King’s hard-line stances on immigration, claiming they hamper the GOP’s effort to attract Hispanic voters.
Smith has not moved King’s controversial birthright citizen bill through his committee, and it is not expected to hit the floor this year.
But moving a measure establishing English as the official language during this election year could put Obama in a tough spot.
Shortly after arriving as a freshman Illinois lawmaker, Obama voted against an amendment to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have made English the national language of the United States.
Vice President Biden — then Delaware’s senior senator — also opposed the amendment, which was approved in a 64-33 vote on June 6, 2007. Seventeen Democrats backed the amendment, including Sens. Ben Cardin (Md.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).
The comprehensive immigration bill subsequently died in the Senate.
All four remaining Republican presidential candidates support making English the official language of the United States.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has co-sponsored King’s bill, while former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) also supported official English measures when he served in the upper chamber.
Armed with that support, King is vowing to press House GOP leadership officials.
Asked if House Republican leaders will act on the issue, House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) was noncommittal.
“I think the lion’s share of our energy is going to be focused on jobs, the economy, energy and taxes,” Roskam told The Hill.
King is also rallying support for another one of his bills that would he said would “clarify that wages and benefits paid to illegals are not tax deductible as a business expense.”
Santorum and Gingrich have endorsed the New Illegal Deduction Elimination Act (IDEA), King said, noting that he is working to gain Romney’s backing.
Smith, meanwhile, cosponsored Kings’s New IDEA in December.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), another backer of the bill, argued that moving the measure is the least that Congress should do to address the immigration issue this year.
“I don’t think that we should take a walk at reaching out and finding a way to do the minimum — the most moderate proposal — and I think the New IDEA is the most moderate you can do … just stop the subsidization of employers who are breaking the law,” Bilbray said.
Because the measure would deal with reforming the tax code, as well as combating illegal immigration, the issue could be one that House GOP leaders would pursue on the agenda this year.
“I’ve not heard that, but it sure could” fit into bills that fall under the broad area of taxes, Roskam said.
Regardless, King intends to press his leaders on both pieces of legislation.
“I’m starting to work this thing towards a hearing, we surely ought to have a hearing. I can push it harder and I intend to,” King said.