WASHINGTON -- After weeks of post-election drift, the Clinton White House has seized its best opportunity in months to stand up effectively to the assaults of the new Republican-controlled Congress.
In stoutly defending his new national service program, Americorps, against House Speaker Newt Gingrich's criticism that it amounts to "coerced volunteerism," Clinton has chosen ground that he should be able to hold, with a veto if necessary.
No program better exemplifies what Clinton campaigned for in 1992. He repeatedly called on young Americans to serve at home in the spirit of the Peace Corps abroad, promising to provide college tuition aid for those who volunteered a year or two of their time on various community projects.
Now only four months in operation, Americorps has more young people working, through local public and private entities, than the Peace Corps had at its peak. Clinton chose Martin Luther King Day, designated by Congress last August as a day of public service to others, to crow about the program.
The president warned, however, of reports that "there may be a move to abolish the national service corps to save money to pay for tax cuts." While he, too, wants to provide a middle-class tax cut, he said, efforts to reduce the size of government should not be made "to wreck government, not to give us a mean-spirited government."
The program is one of 22 under the purview of a House Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, getting only $577 million this year out of $24.6 billion for the 22. But Lewis says all are to be reviewed for savings.
Eli Segal, director of the program, says he doesn't understand why Gingrich should be opposed when it does not create any new federal bureaucracy, imposes no burdens on the states and has been applauded by many Republican governors. "Rather than unfunded mandates," which governors oppose regarding other federal programs, Segal says, "this is a funded non-mandate." That is, the federal government gives the volunteers an education stipend and states and localities can take or leave their services.
Administration sources are plainly enthusiastic about having this particular issue to fight over. National service won solid Democratic support and a fair amount of Republican backing when enacted in 1993. It is one program on which conservative and liberal Democrats can unite and conservative Republicans may find themselves isolated.
The decision to spotlight Gingrich's opposition, and the way it was implemented, was the first impressive bit of political business to come from the White House this year. The president himself brought the issue front and center, demonstrating that he was willing and able to buck the new Republican congressional steamroller on something at the core of his political philosophy.
Clinton, to be sure, has taken firm positions in the past -- most notably his threat to veto any health care bill that didn't provide universal coverage -- and then has indicated he might settle for less. Now that he has drawn the line with the Republicans on this issue, he must stand firm or reinforce the damaging image of weakness that has plagued him.
But if there is any program that Clinton is likely to go down in flames for, national service is it. Even if the Republican Congress votes to kill the program, he can veto the action, and there isn't a better prospect for his first presidential veto, if it comes to that.
The Gingrich contention that national service is "coerced volunteerism" because participants are paid is silly on its face. It is no more so than the volunteer army or the Peace Corps, whose members also are paid.
Up to now, Clinton had seemed reduced to trying meekly to get along with the new Republican power arrangement in Washington.
The last two months had been spent seeking a Democratic course that would not slide into me-tooism. In defending Americorps, Clinton has a good case to make that government can help without creating another large, expensive bureaucracy -- and that Gingrich is trying to throw a good baby out with the bath water.