National Service Program Clears Filibuster Hurdle
Senate Democrats struck a deal Friday with their Republican colleagues to end a weeklong filibuster of legislation to implement President Clinton’s national service program, a move that virtually assures the plan’s passage.
“This is a good day for the Senate, a better day for national service and a great day for America,” said Eli Segal, who heads the White House office of national service. “The long haul seems to have been worth it. I think essentially we’re done.”
The Senate was still debating details of the plan that would put tens of thousands of people to work in an effort to revitalize America and reward them with education stipends. A final vote is scheduled for Tuesday.
Republicans gave up trying to scuttle the plan when they realized that too many among them had deserted to the other side. “We did not have the votes,” admitted Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Five Republicans had decided to support a slightly trimmed-down version of Clinton’s plan, making it impossible to maintain the filibuster.
Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) said that 42 members of the Republican caucus--all except himself and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.)--were “held hostage” and not allowed to vote to break the filibuster a day earlier, even though several were satisfied with the compromise reached by that point.
“They didn’t realize that we went over the edge on gridlock a couple of weeks ago,” Durenberger said of his fellow Republicans. “Now Republicans and gridlock are seen as a problem. It’s worse than it was in 1978, when I first was elected. No one is doing anything.”
Durenberger said that passage of the national service legislation will be a victory not only for the President but also for Republicans, who succeeded in limiting the price tag of the program and guaranteeing that it will be reconsidered in three years instead of five, as the Administration had wanted.
Segal conceded that the Republican changes are “sound and made the program better.”
The compromise worked out by Republican and Democratic senators and the Administration limits funding to $300 million in the first year, $500 million in the second and $700 million in the third.
Segal said that the Administration may “voluntarily” agree to a sum less than $700 million for the third year to ensure passage Tuesday. In the February budget proposal, the Administration had envisioned a national service program that would cost $3.4 billion by 1997.
Earlier in the week, the House passed a bill that set a limit on spending of nearly $400 million in the first year and allows for significant increases over the next four years.
The House version allows for an education bonus for participants of $4,725 per year, instead of the $5,000 requested by the Administration, because some Republicans opposed the idea of national service participants receiving larger education benefits than military personnel under the GI Bill. Participants would also receive minimal wages, along with health care benefits.
The final legislation will be a result of a negotiation between the House and Senate.
Segal stressed that the changes made by the Senate and House “represent modest trimming along the edges” and not serious challenges to the essence or scope of Clinton’s proposal, one of the most widely applauded initiatives he proposed during his campaign.
The Administration still expects to engage 100,000 people in national service over the next three years, he added. Its aim had been to have 25,000 participants in the first year and 150,000 participants by the fifth year of the program.
While the program is open to people of all ages, most participants are expected to be 17 to 25. With about 34 million Americans meeting that qualification, the chance any one young person has of winning a slot is about as great as winning a lottery.
Segal said that, although the picture of national service drawn by Clinton during the campaign was interpreted by many as something every young person could do, that was not Clinton’s intent.
The expected victory in the Senate should be viewed as a success for Clinton not only in terms of his ability to break congressional stalemates but also of his ability to achieve the goal of “putting people first” that he set out in his campaign, Segal said.
“This is more a big victory for the President in the context of why he ran for the presidency,” he said.
Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) proposed amending the legislation to restrict the size of education grants for all but the neediest participants. But Democratic senators fought back, charging that there are lots of programs that benefit the poor.
The program’s broad popularity is tied to the fact that it is seen as a program that would help middle-class Americans, and as such it helped shape Clinton’s image as a “new Democrat.”
“What we’re trying to do is open the door a little bit to middle-class families,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in an emotional defense of the program.