Updated 4:54 p.m. | If you listened closely to the Senate floor shortly after noon Tuesday, you heard something you don’t hear every day.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., delivered a floor speech in Spanish to encourage support for the immigration overhaul drafted by the “gang of eight” senators that’s now being considered on the floor.
“I think it is appropriate that I spend a few minutes explaining the bill in Spanish, a language that has been spoken in this country since Spanish missionaries founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565,” Kaine said.
While unusual, Kaine’s speech wasn’t entirely unprecedented. Other senators have made remarks in Spanish on the floor. Kaine’s speech appears to be the first delivered entirely in a foreign language, though.
For instance, in February 2005, Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., delivered a portion of his maiden speech in Spanish. Martinez was encouraging his Senate colleagues to support President George W. Bush’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general, as Roll Call reported at the time:
Martinez said the bulk of his first-ever Senate floor speech would be in English. But he noted that he thought it was appropriate to make some remarks in Spanish given the timeliness of the Gonzales confirmation.
“I will do it in a respectful way, because I know we are an English-speaking country,” said Martinez, who moved to Florida from Cuba as a teenager. “But I think to resonate … saying a few words in Spanish will be a good thing.”
It is rare for a Senator to speak in a language other than English, according to Senate Historian Richard Baker.
“It is clearly something that was extremely unusual a generation ago,” Baker said.
According to CQ Roll Call’s “Politics in America,” Kaine was a teacher at a Jesuit school in El Progreso, Honduras.
“Vamos a demonstrar a este país y al mundo que esta legislación no es Republicana y no es Demócrata, es fuertemente bipartidista. Es tiempo que aprobemos una reforma migratoria comprensiva,” Kaine said.
Translated into English, that’s: “Let’s show this country and the world that this is not a Republican bill and it is not a Democratic bill but it is a strong bipartisan bill. It is time that we pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Kaine’s speech came the same day that gang of eight member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced he would propose an amendment to the immigration bill to strengthen the standard of determining English-language proficiency for permanent residency.
A Kaine aide confirmed that delivering a speech in a language other than English required unanimous consent, as so many things do in the Senate. The same was true in April when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was joined by an American Sign Language interpreter.
There have been other reported cases of foreign languages being spoken on the Senate floor, as well as the occasional prayer or statement in a Native American language, but there’s no complete historical record of such instances.
As Roll Call has reported, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., used Spanish on the floor of the Senate a couple of years before the Martinez speech.
Niels Lesniewski has covered the Senate for CQ Roll Call since January 2010, and more recently as a staff writer and resident procedure guru for Roll Call. Niels holds degrees in both government and theater but sometimes can't tell the difference between the two. @nielslesniewski
Meredith Shiner has covered Senate leadership, legislation and everything in between for Roll Call since joining in June 2011, having previously covered Congress and national politics for Politico. @meredithshiner