The Senate agreed Monday to take up legislation to triple the size of the AmeriCorps program and open up opportunities for more people to serve their communities.
Lawmakers voted 74-14 to move to the legislation that would expand AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 positions to 250,000 over the course of eight years. Sixty votes were needed to bring the bill to the floor. The measure is expected to come up for a final vote in the Senate sometime this week.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is being treated for brain cancer, made a rare appearance on the Senate floor to vote for the bill that he co-sponsored with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
The legislation would also create five groups to help poor people, improve education, encourage energy efficiency, strengthen access to health care and assist veterans.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said the proposal is an investment that "will pay dividends long beyond anything that we can imagine."
House passed similar bill
The House last week passed a similar bill to add 175,000 participants to AmeriCorps and other national service programs. President Barack Obama backs the legislation and has said he is eager for Congress to pass a bill so he can sign it.
Both bills would set up a fund to help nonprofit organizations recruit more volunteers and establish a Summer of Service program for middle and high school students, who would earn a $500 education award. Each measure would also create fellowships for older people who get involved in public service. Both would also increase the education awards of AmeriCorps participants, whose work ranges from teaching young people to responding to disasters.
After completing their service, AmeriCorps participants can receive up to $4,725 to help pay for college or pay off student loans. The Senate and House bills would increase that award to $5,350 and require that it match any future increases in Pell Grant scholarships. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version would allow older AmeriCorps members to transfer their education awards to their children or grandchildren.
Some AmeriCorps participants get a living stipend while they are working for 10 to 12 months. The stipend ranges from $11,400 to $22,800 for the year. Most participants, who are predominantly 18 to 26, get $11,800.
The Senate measure is slated to cost $5.7 billion over five years, while the House version is an estimated $6 billion over five years. Obama's proposed budget for next year calls for more than $1.1 billion for national service programs, an increase of more than $210 million.