Senate Looks High and Low for Final Cuts : Budget: Funding for space lab is spared, but Clinton's volunteer program is axed. Votes bring final action on funding bill within reach.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beginning to deal with some of its most difficult budget decisions, the Senate narrowly defeated an attempt Tuesday to keep President Clinton's national service program alive and voted to continue building an orbiting space station.

The votes came as the Senate neared final action on legislation to pay for operations next year of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans' Affairs, and several other agencies. The final vote on the $81-billion funding measure is expected today.

The Senate action Tuesday appeared to be the last chance to keep the national service program alive. Clinton had sought $819 million for the year-old plan, nearly doubling current funding, for its budget for the fiscal year beginning Sunday.

Instead, the House voted in July to shut it down, giving it no money for 1996. The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted against funding the program.

An amendment offered by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) to provide $426.5 million and keep the program operating with 21,000 volunteers was turned down on a vote of 52 to 47.

Formally known as the Corporation for National and Community Service, the AmeriCorps program was a centerpiece of Clinton's domestic agenda, one that he sought to make his Administration's equivalent of the Peace Corps, established by President John F. Kennedy.

AmeriCorps now sends young volunteers into inner cities and rural areas to serve child care and senior citizen centers and environmental programs in exchange for modest living expenses and assistance in paying future college tuition.

But critics complained that it also was being used to staff government agencies rather than to perform community service, with the Department of the Interior and the National Endowment for the Humanities in particular benefiting from the labor, and that it ate up extraordinary amounts in overhead, costing the federal government $15,000 for each participant.

"A volunteer program should be a volunteer program, not a way to subsidize the government bureaucracy," said Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.).

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), arguing in support of the program, said that it was "not the solution to all our problems . . . but it is making a difference."

The space station, which would be an orbiting, permanently staffed scientific laboratory, survived easily. The attempt to kill the program by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who has tried for six years to end its funding, was defeated, 64 to 35.

The Senate measure would provide $2.1 billion for the space lab, the same amount approved earlier by the House. The vote was a strong show of support for a program that has faced termination each year because of cost overruns.

Hoping to add political stability to the development of the international space station, the House also authorized the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to spend an additional $11 billion to complete the station by 2002.

Originally budgeted at $8 billion, the project's costs have exceeded $11 billion to date. But critics, including Bumpers, cited a report by the General Accounting Office that set the price tag at almost $94 billion during the next 17 years--including costs to launch, maintain and operate the space shuttle that will work with the station.

Early in the debate, Bumpers conceded that the odds against removing the funding for the space station were long, because NASA contracts and the thousands of jobs associated with the project were distributed across 36 states.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that all you need to have around here is 26 states with at least 10 jobs and you can't kill it because that's 52 votes," Bumpers said.

Three of every four dollars related to the multibillion-dollar project are spent in California, Alabama and Texas, Bumpers added. It provides 1,000 jobs in Orange County and 4,500 in California.

Still, Bumpers said, "the station cannot be supported on scientific grounds. Every single scientist worth his weight in this country, every single medical researcher in this country, says you cannot justify this on the grounds you are going to get some life-saving pharmaceuticals out of this."

But Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) argued that "this program is probably one of the most vital programs we have when we start talking about science, technology and research."

An attempt to restore funding for the homeless was set aside. The issue will be resolved before final action on the bill today.

Times staff writer Gebe Martinez contributed to this story.

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