Moving aggressively to defend what he considers one of the crown jewels of his Administration, President Clinton on Monday assailed Republican efforts to gut the 6-month-old national service program.
Clinton's vigorous defense of the volunteer program marked a deliberate attempt to pick a fight with the new GOP majority in Congress over an issue on which Clinton believes he has the public's support and the moral high ground.
In a speech here marking Martin Luther King Day, Clinton asserted that the program he has likened to a domestic Peace Corps is precisely the kind of initiative that government should undertake: encouraging volunteerism, local control and participation of charitable organizations.
"Most of all," the President said to an outdoor crowd estimated at 10,000, "this is about creating that new relationship of obligation and opportunity."
Clinton cited the legacy of the slain civil rights leader, who, the President said, shared the program's view that "all of us had a responsibility to do our part and to serve."
His comments came amid a broad White House counterassault on the comments of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was quoted in a Newsweek column published Monday as saying that Clinton's AmeriCorps service program is "gimmickry" and "coerced voluntarism."
Gingrich said that he was "totally, unequivocally opposed to national service" and indicated that he would use his power to kill the program, which costs $590 million this year and whose price tag is expected to approach $1 billion next year.
The national service program, a cornerstone of Clinton's 1992 campaign platform, currently employs 20,000 young Americans in 300 local programs aimed at advancing education, environmental cleanup, law enforcement and social work. Workers in the program receive a living allowance and limited health and medical care while they are taking part. Full-time workers are entitled to a maximum $4,725 tuition grant after a year of service.
In Washington, the director of the Corporation for National Service, Eli J. Segal, called a news conference to defend the program and to lay down a marker on Clinton's behalf.
"The President told me, 'This is my signature program. . . . This is a program I am going to fight for today, tomorrow and forever,' " Segal said in the White House briefing room, flanked by AmeriCorps volunteers rounded up for the hurriedly arranged briefing.
Segal wrote to Gingrich on Monday inviting him to visit several AmeriCorps projects to learn the value of the program. "We obviously have some education work to do" with the new Speaker, Segal said.
Gingrich praised the program's "idealism" when Clinton proposed it in 1993 but said that it inevitably would grow into a huge and costly bureaucracy. He voted against it but 26 House Republicans and seven GOP senators voted for it.
Gingrich's office was closed for the King holiday and Gingrich could not be reached for comment.
Other officials said that Clinton often has said that national service is the Administration action of which he is most proud. One top White House aide traveling with the President said that Republicans have targeted national service for elimination and that Clinton plans to fight for the program.
"Clearly, it's one of the places where we're going to draw the line," the official said. "It is what Americans are for. They're asking for streamlining government but to make that work you've got to be able to provide incentives for volunteerism and that's what national service is all about."
The program is expected to enroll 33,000 young people this year and as many as 47,000 in 1996 in a variety of public service projects.
Before a crowd of several thousand at Denver's downtown Greek Amphitheater, Clinton said of the AmeriCorps volunteers: "These young people are committed to service. And if we are all committed to the idea that we are all bound up with each other, then we can be great and our country can be great."
By working for their communities, then going to school with the grants the government gives in return, "these people are building the new economy," the President said. And because the program consists of local projects, "there's no bureaucracy at all."
Clinton acknowledged that government must shrink and become more efficient, but he said that some programs are worth saving. The reason to pare the bureaucracy, he said, is "not to wreck government, not to give us a mean-spirited government."
AmeriCorps had arranged a series of King Day observances around the country Monday. Clinton's Denver speech drew several dozen national service volunteers, all wearing dark green AmeriCorps parkas.
"Newt's wrong," said Jeremy Vigil, 20, an AmeriCorps volunteer. "We've been getting a lot of things done. I've tutored third graders. I saw improvement in their math. We're fixing up houses. How can you say we're not needed?"
Meachie Morgan, an AmeriCorps supervisor, agreed.
"We need this program badly," she said. "I just got back from the Peace Corps and now I am in AmeriCorps. We're solving our own problems instead of just crying out for help."
Many of the blacks who gathered in the city's main square had mixed emotions as they celebrated King's birthday. Race relations in this country are still rocky, they said, although most considered Clinton a friend in the White House.
"It's a happy yet sad occasion," said Nadean Brown, 39, a home health care worker bundled in a green winter parka. "Even though you may see other races out here, there's a lot of prejudice."
She rolled her eyes when she heard some passersby criticizing the President.
"I like Clinton," she said. "He may not have done everything but he is trying. I think he's on the same wavelength with us blacks."
Shareef Aleem, 26, hawked T-shirts among the crowd to drive home the point that all is not well in Denver. "Racism is an Illness," they said.
Richter reported from Denver and Los Angeles and Broder from Washington. Times staff writer Marc Lacey contributed to this story.
* CLINTON IN L.A.: B1