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Senate Moves to Expand National Service Programs

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

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WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday to broadly expand national community service programs, increasing the number of positions to 250,000 from 75,000 and creating new cadres of volunteers focused on education, clean energy, health care and veterans.

The vote was 78 to 20 on the measure, renamed the Senator Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, in honor of the Massachusetts Democrat who was a main architect of the legislation.

After the vote was tallied, Mr. Kennedy received a standing ovation on the Senate floor. His son, Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island, was in the chamber for the occasion. And the elder Mr. Kennedy got a huge round of congratulations, including a hug from Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, who was also a main author of the service bill.

“The whole Kennedy family has been a service family,” Mr. Hatch said.

The Senate measure now goes to the House, which approved a different version of the legislation last week. Officials said they expected the House to adopt the Senate bill next week and send it to President Obama, a proponent of community service programs, who is expected to sign it into law.

Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is the main sponsor of the bill in the House, issued a statement praising the Senate measure. Aides said it would clear the House easily.

The service legislation is also a top priority of Michelle Obama, who has said that promoting volunteerism will be a major focus of her time in the White House.

The legislation, which had broad bipartisan support, would expand the ranks of AmeriCorps, which was created by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to bring federal volunteer programs under a single umbrella.

In addition to adding positions to AmeriCorps, the bill would create four new service corps. The expansion would cost about $6 billion over five years. The bill would raise the education stipend paid to volunteers to $5,350, the same amount as a Pell Grant college scholarship.

The more than tripling of the number of federal service positions, at a time when the recession is expected to vastly increase the demand for volunteer work among college graduates, amounts to the boldest expansion of service opportunities since President John F. Kennedy called for a national service corps in 1963.

The bill also seeks to encourage volunteer work among retirees and would offer them a $1,000 educational award that they could transfer to a child or grandchild.

“All across America, people want to volunteer if they have the opportunity to do so,” said Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, who helped shepherd the bill to final passage.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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