WASHINGTON -- With overwhelming bipartisan support, Senate and House committees yesterday approved President Clinton's national service program to enlist volunteers to do social, law enforcement and environmental work in return for payments toward education loans.
Democrats and Republicans recalled the initiation of the Peace Corps and Vista (Volunteers in Service to America) in the 1960s as they voted for a program designed to spur greater community spirit, broaden access to higher education and engage new graduates in socially useful work.
Virtually guaranteeing a major administration legislative victory before the end of the summer, the Senate Labor and Human Resources approved the bill by a vote of 14-3. After tinkering around the edges of the proposal, the House Education and Labor Committee followed by voice vote.
The plan would create a National Service Corp. to allocate service slots to state governments, which in turn would distribute volunteer positions to local governments, nonprofit organizations, school districts and institutions of higher education.
Local programs involved in education, environmental or police work and assisting the elderly or the homeless would offer stipends to participants of about $7,000, with the federal government picking up 85 percent of the tab.
Aside from the stipend, volunteers awarded positions would receive awards of $5,000 toward paying off their education loans for each year of work. Recent graduates of college or trade schools would be able to volunteer up to two years, and they also would receive health benefits.
In a year when budgets are tight, the amount of money Congress will ultimately spend for the program is in question. President Clinton called for $400 million in 1994 to cover 25,000 community service jobs.
Earlier, the House Appropriations Committee approved spending only $105 million for 10,000 jobs, although sponsors hope to get more money once the plan is passed later this summer.
The administration hopes that by 1997 about 150,000 participants can be included in the program, which was a cornerstone of President Clinton's campaign. It was viewed as a tenet of the New Democratic agenda, which calls for programs that emphasize personal initiative over dependence on government largess.
Although it would affect far fewer graduates, the national service program is designed to meet President Clinton's objectives of reducing interest rates on student loans by replacing middleman bankers with Education Department administrators.
The House has approved the direct-lending plan, but the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee modified the program last week to retain some banker involvement in student lending and phase in direct government lending to students over several years.
When Mr. Clinton outlined the national service plan in April before an audience of cheering students, he said it would eventually "revive America's commitment to community and make affordable the cost of a college education for every American."