NEW : What Really Happened
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By Matt Canham
Washington » The Senate approved a bill Thursday that would greatly expand federally sponsored volunteer programs, marking the latest collaboration between Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.
Known as the Serve America Act, the Kennedy-Hatch bill would triple the number of AmeriCorp volunteers to 250,000 and boost the educational stipend they receive to meet President Barack Obama's goal of teaming community service with tuition assistance.
It creates new "corps" focused on health care, clean energy, education and disaster response.
"This is something that will do an immense amount of good in our society," Hatch said. "People don't go into national service because the pay is good, they do it because they have a desire to give back to their country and their community."
The bill passed on a vote of 79-19. The House previously approved the legislation, but will have to vote on it again because of some amendments, including a new mentoring program for foster children. House leaders have said they will try to pass the bipartisan bill early next week.
Kennedy and Hatch are political polar opposites, but they are close friends who have teamed up on hundreds of pieces of legislation including the Americans with Disability Act and the Children's Health Insurance Program. But Hatch said this collaboration stands apart.
"I've never been more pleased with abill than this one," Hatch said. "I know that he feels the same way."
Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, did not participate in the Senate debate.
Hatch made repeated floor appearances this week to tout the legislation as a way to better the county, while also finding a productive outlet for those who lost their jobs in the recession. He also explained how his experience as a Mormon missionary in the Great Lakes states motivated him to expand national service.
"I could tell story after story on the ways I grew in those two years," said Hatch, who called the experience "the greatest period of my life."
But Hatch's main job this week was to try to win over skeptical Republicans, who consider the bill unnecessary government expansion and didn't like the bill's $5.7 billion price tag.
"Help offered by a compassionate neighbor will always be superior to government-driven approaches designed in Washington," Hatch said on the Senate floor.
The bill easily passed in the House, with Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson supporting the bill. But Utah Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop opposed it with Chaffetz saying: "Paid volunteer programs sounds like an oxymoron to me."
Hatch argues the true value of AmeriCorp participants is their ability to recruit unpaid volunteers to work on community programs.
Utah had 97 active AmeriCorp programs last year, with nearly 1,400 participants assisting the medically underserved, restoring trails and habitat and helping the poor with their taxes.
Still more Utah groups seek AmeriCorp help than the program can currently fund.
"Having those additional resources will allow us to get out to more organizations and impact the community," said Jacob Murakami, state program director for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent group for AmeriCorps.
Obama on Thursday once again touted the bill as a way to help America's young people afford college.
Volunteers who agree to serve in AmeriCorp posts for one year get a small living stipend, which is less than the minimum wage, and an educational award. The bill would boost that amount by about $600 to $5,350. The Kennedy-Hatch legislation also would allow volunteers older than 55 to pass on that educational benefit to their children or grandchildren.