WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration's plan for a national service corps is moving with dispatch through Congress but it is being transformed quietly into something a bit different from the idea candidate and then President Clinton so frequently described to enthusiastic crowds.
Showing the effects of strong political and social forces, the program, which was approved by committees in both the House and Senate Wednesday, is no longer primarily a way for middle-income young people to earn money for college while doing socially useful work.
The legislation making its way through Congress, however, ensures a strong representation of low-income participants. Projects in economically distressed areas will be given priority and the legislation requires that at least one-third of the projects meet that criterion.
"It has changed," Eli Segal, who heads the White House national service office, said. "In the campaign, it was frequently identified as a middle-class program. Now it's clear that the President wants it to be more than a middle-class program."
The change is occurring as the White House is striving to placate urban liberals and ethnic lobbies that feel short-changed by some of Clinton's decisions, including his withdrawal of University of Pennsylvania law professor C. Lani Guinier's nomination to head the civil rights office of the Justice Department.
It could come at significant cost though. By scaling back the stake of middle-income people in the program, he opens himself to more criticism that he is really a traditional liberal tax-and-spend Democrat.
Particularly disappointed might be the so-called Reagan Democrats, who saw national service as a rare Democratic program that actually would help them and their children. It was these Reagan Democrats who helped sweep Clinton into office and their support for him has been waning in recent weeks as they watch his plans to "reinvest" in America translated into higher taxes for them and less spending on programs that would help them.
The nips and tucks in this high-profile program demonstrate with particular clarity the effects of powerful forces on a new President's agenda.
Under the legislation, the stipend that participants of national service would receive, in addition to a low wage, could be used not only for college--as it was originally pitched--but also for getting a high school equivalency certificate, or non-college training.
"Someone can use this at any stage of his or her life," Segal said in an interview. "If he or she hasn't finished college or hasn't started college--a 57-year-old grandmother or single mother--wants to join the program, he or she can participate in the program. . . . But we believe it will be overwhelmingly young people."
The redraft of the legislation to ensure a concentration on low-income participants and poor areas is partly attributable to the efforts of freshman Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). His amendment accomplishing that has been included in both the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
Becerra and other urban Democrats said that the President's original proposal did not do enough to guarantee significant participation in the program by poor people.
"If we're going to have people doing national service and if we're going to use federal dollars, we should make sure the program helps economically or socially distressed areas and the people who live in them," Becerra said in an interview.
He made the point that the Peace Corps does its work in Third World countries and not in Western Europe. "The same theory should apply to national service," he said. Becerra represents an ethnically diverse poor and working-class district in Los Angeles.
It is essential that the program--expected to have 25,000 participants by 1994 and to cost $394 million--give opportunities to low-income people to serve their communities and earn money for their educations, Becerra said. For poor young people, he said, two years of national service and a $10,000 stipend for education could put their lives on a different track.
"Those who are already doing well don't need a lot of help," he said.
Segal stressed, however, that economically advantaged young people and affluent areas will not be barred from the program. Ideally, participants from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds will work together on the national service teams.