WASHINGTON — The nation's volunteer corps will expand dramatically to aid the country's poor people, spruce up its parks, help veterans and military families, and provide new programs for seniors and students under legislation the House of Representatives approved on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama, a onetime community organizer in Chicago, pushed hard for the bill, which will allow the 16-year-old AmeriCorps and other government-backed service programs to expand from 75,000 positions to 250,000.
"This is legislation that will usher in a new era of service in America, and I look forward to signing it into law when I return to Washington,” said Obama, who's in Europe this week.
The measure authorizes government spending of $5.7 billion on service programs over the next five years. Obama is seeking $1.1 billion for fiscal 2010.
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The bill met little opposition, winning House approval by 275 to 149 after passing the Senate last week by 79 to 19.
The bill's progress was stalled briefly when the conservative Republican Study Committee issued a "legislative bulletin" Monday charging that the bill is "part of a Democrat agenda to force taxpayers to fund liberal service organizations," and would expand programs that in the past have funded abortion-rights and gay-rights groups.
All the "no" votes came from Republican lawmakers, but 26 GOP House members voted for it. Any objections were overwhelmed by support from lawmakers across the ideological spectrum.
"I understand the concern that we are going too far in expanding these programs," said Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Enzi said, however, that, "In exchange for an education award and a small stipend, we are supporting Americans who have made a commitment to mobilize their neighbors to address the pressing needs of their communities."
The bill creates and expands a series of programs to encourage people to serve.
Middle and high school students participating in summer programs could get up to $500 to help pay education costs. Service corps volunteers, who are usually college age, could get as much as $5,350 next year to help with the cost of college, up from the current $4,725.
In addition, the government's national service initiative would include five new organizations, focusing on education, healthy futures, clean energy, veterans and an Opportunity Corps to help "economically disadvantaged" people.
In another innovation, people over 55 could qualify for "Silver Scholar Awards" of $1,000 for at least 350 hours of service, or "Encore Fellowships" that would help them make a transition into full or regular part-time service.
Nonprofits will be able to use a Volunteer Generation Fund that will give grants to states or nonprofit groups, with the aim of increasing the number of volunteers. And a Campuses of Service program will designate 25 colleges or universities eligible for funds to offer programs where students could learn about national service.
The measure cleared Congress with an emotional tug.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who's being treated for a brain tumor, was a chief sponsor, and came back to the Senate last week to vote on the bill.
With his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., watching, the senator got a standing ovation from colleagues after the vote ended, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, urged that the bill be renamed "the Senator Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act."
Also providing momentum was the staggering national economy.
"Americans are facing unprecedented challenges and asking for help," said House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.
AmeriCorps hasn't always been so well-regarded. Republicans in Congress routinely targeted it for extinction in the 1990s, but President Bill Clinton kept it alive. A 2004 Government Accountability Office study questioned some management practices at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which manages the program.
In a 2002 study, the conservative Heritage Foundation found that it couldn't retain participants, had trouble attracting private funding and "looked like another federal jobs program."
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