Washington — You would think it's a natural: a bill repeatedly praised by President Bush and admired by Democrats, a patriotic measure ready for passage as the nation prepares for the solemn ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
That is why it is so stunning that the Citizen Service Act, which would reform and expand the main volunteer community programs, is being blocked by the House Republican leadership, apparently to spare a minority of hard-core conservatives from having to vote on the measure before Election Day.
The bill reauthorizes the Corporation for National and Community Service and makes improvements in AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other volunteer programs it runs. It came out of committee, with strong bipartisan support, in early June. Sponsors say it would pass with minimal debate and no major amendments probably by a majority of more than 3-1 in a single day. But somehow, Majority Leader Dick Armey, who controls the floor schedule, cannot find time to send the bill on to certain passage in the Senate.
No one is more frustrated by the roadblock than Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican and staunch conservative who crafted the measure along with Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat who is ending a singularly useful House career by retiring this year.
It was Roemer who called my attention to the apparent decision by House Republican leaders to undercut this White House initiative. But it was Hoekstra, the chairman of the subcommittee that crafted the many compromises embedded in the bill, who really blew the whistle on the holdup.
"It is so short-sighted," he exclaimed. "As we approach 9-11, the idea of giving something back to the country, as a tribute to those who lost their lives, has powerful appeal to people. It is such a great contrast to the examples of corporate greed we've been seeing from executives who only asked what they could take for themselves. It's a way that people here can come closer to matching the sacrifices of the U.S. troops I just saw on my trip to Afghanistan."
And yet, Hoekstra said, when he approached Armey before the August recess, the plainspoken Texan, also retiring this year, "told me he is not inclined to schedule the bill. That means, he won't bring it up."
Armey himself was not available when I called his office, but his aides were frank in confirming and explaining his opposition to the measure. "He has never been a fan of AmeriCorps," the program that sends volunteers to work with local agencies such as Habitat for Humanity, a senior associate said. "It is regarded as Bill Clinton's pet project. It would be a difficult vote for many of our members and it would alienate our base, less than 100 days before the election."
That blunt political calculation so far has trumped efforts by Bush, as recently as last Saturday's radio address, to promote volunteer service as part of his agenda. John Bridgeland, the White House aide in charge of that initiative, said the public response to Bush's State of the Union challenge to Americans to involve themselves in community projects has been extraordinary. More than 3,000 people a week are downloading AmeriCorps applications, more than 76,000 have requested Peace Corps applications, and more than 48,000 have signed up for Citizen Corps programs.
Funding for all these volunteer programs will continue, but, as Hoekstra pointed out, unless the authorizing legislation now being roadblocked is passed, the reforms he and Roemer have negotiated will not take place.
Hoekstra himself was a severe critic of AmeriCorps when it began under Clinton, but, like a number of other conservatives, has become an advocate. Most of the stricter guidelines and accountability measures in the bill came from conservative critics, Hoekstra points out. But some Republicans an uncertain number are implacably hostile to any government sponsorship of volunteer programs and do not want these Clinton-era initiatives continued under Bush. It is those diehards Armey is protecting.
Republicans like to complain that Senate Democrats have blocked many Bush initiatives, and often they are right. But Bridgeland confirmed to me that Sen. Ted Kennedy was prepared to move this legislation out of his committee months ago, and delayed at the White House's request to give Hoekstra time to work out changes in the bill that would satisfy most House Republicans. Kennedy aides say he will go ahead later this month, even if Armey continues his blockade.
Armey's aides say that the White House has not put the bill on its "must-pass list." Clearly, if the president really wants it, he is going to have to fight for it.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.