WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Senate's success yesterday in ending the Republican filibuster against President Clinton's national service proposal gives him an important legislative victory at precisely the time he needs one. Although the bill that has already passed the House and is now headed for easy Senate approval is a scaled-down version of what Clinton advocated in the 1992 campaign and originally proposed, it retains the basic ingredients that made the idea among the most popular in
candidate Clinton's pitch for votes last year.
Commonly known as a "domestic Peace Corps," the program will provide almost $10,000 in tuition payments to 150,000 selected applicants over five years in return for two years of community service as teachers, nurses, police aides, providers of child and elderly care and other similar activities. Perhaps more than any other Clinton initiative, this one offers the promise of painting the new president as an innovator and generator of a sense of public commitment among the young, often characterized as self-absorbed during the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era.
In the end, two factors appeared to break the logjam. One was the late-starting but intensified effort of the president and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell to cast the Republicans as unprincipled obstructionists out to deny Clinton the achievement any substantial victory. If the Republicans under the leadership of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole have been successful in painting Clinton as just another tax-and-spend Democrat, the Democratic leadership in return has done a fair job in slapping the obstructionist label on them.
The other factor was the issue itself. Because the national service concept was so popular with campaign audiences last year, continued Republican recalcitrance on the Clinton bill was risky political business. Besides, the five Republicans who finally indicated they would vote to cut off the filibuster -- Sens. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Dave Durenberger of Minnesota, John Chafee of Rhode Island, William S. Cohen of Maine and Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon -- all are considered moderates in harmony with the national service concept. With their defections, Dole threw in the sponge and allowed voting on the legislation to begin.
The Republican position all through the Reagan and Bush years that volunteerism was the ultimate approach to neighbor helping neighbor, and not some federally funded inducement, never flowered, especially among the young.
George Bush's ballyhooed "Thousand Points of Light" -- individual examples of volunteerism honored by the White House -- spotlighted good works around the country, but it did not tie them to educational opportunity as the Clinton proposal does.
Apparently fearful of rapping the whole popular national service idea, the Republicans in their filibuster against cloture sought either to reduce it to a pilot project -- the preference of Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas -- or authorize it for only two years, which the program's White House overseer, Eli Segal, argued would be insufficient time to get it up and running, and to prove itself.
While making numerous other concessions to the Republicans, the White House hung tough on a three-year authorization, the minimum time it says will be needed to find out whether young Americans who need financial help getting through college are willing to offer something in return, other than military service, to the national well-being. In yesterday's key vote, an amendment by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to cut the authorization to two years was defeated, 51-42, on an essentially party-line vote.
A final Senate vote is set for Tuesday, with Dole conceding he was outgunned once the five Republicans broke ranks and denied him the 40 votes (out of 44 Republicans) he needed to keep the filibuster going.
But it was the issue, rather than any general breakdown in Republican discipline, that produced the defections.
With the showdown vote approaching on the president's economic package, the Senate Republicans seem likely to continue to march in lock step in their opposition.
But this vote can't be filibustered, and Clinton has to worry about defectors among the 56 Democrats, not about Republican obstructionists, to win a simple majority.