WASHINGTON — President Bush's plan to expand federal spending to promote volunteerism, a highlight of his new budget and last week's State of the Union address, has come under fire from a top congressional Republican.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), speaking to reporters Tuesday, bridled at Bush's proposal to vastly expand the budget of AmeriCorps, a national service program created by President Clinton.
"He's wrong on that. He is so wrong on that," said Armey, who argued that the charitable spirit is incompatible with government subsidies and financing. "I think the conceptual framework of AmeriCorps is obnoxious."
Later in the day, Armey issued a statement that softened his criticism, saying he was "encouraged" that Bush's budget also includes plans to revamp AmeriCorps. But Armey is not alone in expressing qualms about the program.
Many conservative Republicans fought for years to kill the program during the Clinton years. And their continuing opposition to it raises the prospect that a key Bush initiative to build his legacy as a "compassionate conservative" and to channel citizen response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will run into more trouble in the GOP-controlled House than in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
"It will be hard for Bush to get everything he asked for on volunteerism," said Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who supports the Bush proposal. "It's a real challenge to get it accepted, but I'm willing to try."
The grumbling about AmeriCorps underscores another political reality obscured by the loud Democratic complaints about the Bush budget: There is plenty in it that Republicans don't like either.
The spending plan proposes cutting money already appropriated for home state projects sought by members of both parties. It would cut funding for highways--which run through Republican districts as well as Democratic ones. Its proposed defense increase, $48 billion, is so big that even some Republicans are wondering if it goes too far.
But the broadest concern expressed by conservative Republicans is that Bush's budget drives the government back into deficit. They are pushing for a balanced budget and looking for ways to trim spending to achieve that goal. AmeriCorps may be one of the first places they look.
At issue is a program established by Clinton in 1993 to promote national service, a kind of "domestic Peace Corps." Some Republicans complained that it includes the payment of stipends to those doing "volunteer" work. The program's management also was criticized.
The GOP-controlled House routinely voted to eliminate money for the program, but it stayed alive because the funding was restored by the more friendly Senate.
Against that backdrop, some Republican conservatives were taken aback when Bush said last week that he wants to build on the post-Sept. 11 sense of civic responsibility by expanding AmeriCorps, which now has 50,000 volunteers. He said he aims to recruit 200,000 new volunteers to AmeriCorps and the Senior Corps, an existing program for retirees.
That was the first proposal Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.), leader of a conservative faction of House Republicans, commented on to his staff after listening to the State of the Union speech. "That was one of the things he wasn't happy about," said John Pappas, Shadegg's press secretary.
In his speech, Bush also suggested that all Americans perform at least 4,000 hours of volunteer work over the course of their lives.
Armey, who is retiring after this session of Congress, was asked Tuesday how he planned to fulfill his 4,000-hour obligation. Armey scoffed at the suggestion and joked that he would do "a few probability seminars. . . . That's called poker."
But he offered a critique of the AmeriCorps program in a more serious vein: "America is a nation of great charity, and we give best when we give what is in our own hearts. We give least well when we give at the direction and supervision of the government. The idea that government can teach charity to America rings very hollow with me."
Asked if he expects Bush to have trouble winning approval of his bid to expand AmeriCorps, Armey said: "Insofar as I can make it possible, he will."
Bush defended his proposal in a visit Tuesday to Pittsburgh.
"I think the country needs to provide opportunities for people to serve," Bush told reporters when advised of Armey's remarks. "Many in the country are asking how they can help."