WASHINGTON -- At the top of President Clinton's list o budget priorities, according to the Wall Street Journal, is ''saving his national-service program.'' It will take a lot of saving; the House has already voted to kill it and the pertinent Senate Committee has voted to do the same.
It is no surprise that the president assigns top priority to the salvation of AmeriCorps, which had 20,000 workers toiling in cities and towns throughout the country in the last year on do-good community projects. National service was his biggest applause-getter when he campaigned for the White House in 1992, and he has said its creation has been the most personally satisfying accomplishment of his administration.
It is for that very reason the suspicion clings that the Republicans in Congress want to give AmeriCorps a quick burial, only days after its first birthday, to give Mr. Clinton a black eye. In terms of public relations at least, there may be no more conspicuous way for them to show their contempt for him, and to embarrass him, than to strangle his favorite baby in its crib.
Still, the president has his veto weapon. Eli Segal, the program's director, says that if the Senate completes the action of cutting off all funds for it, ''the president almost certainly would veto it.'' Mr. Clinton talked hopefully at a first-anniversary observation last week, saying ''I think we'll be around next year to celebrate the second anniversary.''
But the outlook in the Senate, Mr. Segal acknowledges, is dim. Two Democrats, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and James Exon of Nebraska have been steadfastly against national service from the start, which means by Mr. Segal's calculations about six Republicans would have to vote to save the program.
The Republicans have not been mobilizing against AmeriCorps with a pitch that killing it will be a direct slap at President Clinton -- not on the surface anyway, Rather, they have been attacking it as a failure that has cost much more than expected to keep the enlistees in the field.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa has led the fight, seizing on a preliminary report of the General Accounting Office, the auditor for Congress. But a later report found that the per-worker cost to the government actually has been slightly under the program's prediction.
''Grassley gives cover to a lot of his Republican colleagues,'' Mr. Segal says, because he is regarded not only as a birddog on government spending but also as fair-minded. Mr. Segal says he sees some hope in Senator Grassley's more recent talk about ''reinventing'' national service.
One major problem for President Clinton is that other Democrats, liberals especially, have other programs facing the Republican congressional ax that they'd rather save, in the fields of conservation, energy and the environment. In final budget negotiations with the GOP leaders, the president will have to take these interests into consideration as well.
Many Republicans in Congress, particularly the freshmen elected last November who have come to Capitol Hill with an uncommon zeal for budget cutting, no doubt will take special pleasure in burying a program so dear to the Democratic president's heart. But the opposition goes well beyond this narrow rationale.
The GOP critics argue that the enlistees are hardly ''volunteers'' when they are paid more than $7,600 a year as a living allowance and $4,725 at the end of a year's service to defray college or other educational expenses. Further, they argue that the program is yet another example of Washington trying to do with taxpayer money what local communities can do themselves.
This latter argument is rebutted by a host of community groups and leaders singing the praises of AmeriCorps workers coming into their localities to help. At the first birthday party, President Clinton cited Boston investment banker Mitt Romney, the Republican who challenged Sen. Ted Kennedy last year, as a strong supporter. The program has also attracted considerable private funds.
The $367 million being spent this year on the program is small potatoes in the national budget, but the best Mr. Clinton may be able to hope for is a sharp cutback when the matter comes to the Senate floor shortly. Mr. Segal says of the president's efforts to save his pet project: ''Whatever he's been asked to do, he's done.'' But it probably will take a lot more, including an appropriations veto and a fight to sustain it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.