Sensible National Service

DEFENSIVE words like "compromise" and "reconciliation" are being applied to almost every Clinton program, from the buffeted budget to any and all health care proposals. Translated, this means: The White House is having to give up a lot to get a little.

By contrast, the president's national service plan, allowing college students to pay for tuition by public service work, sailed with one-sided approval through two tests - a voice vote from the House Education and Labor Committee and a 14-3 vote from the Senate Labor and Human Services Committee.

Under the proposal, the new National Service Corporation would involve 25,000 students next year and grow to an estimated 150,000 students by 1997. Participants would work in fields such as education, the environment, and law enforcement. For each year of service, students would receive $5,000 to pay off school loans.

After the Capitol Hill trouncings of recent weeks, this relatively clear-cut triumph must leave the White House in a pleasant state of amazement, though the full test will come when the bill goes to the floor after the Fourth of July recess.

There are, of course, some reservations. A number of Republicans question the health and child-care benefits included in the plan. A few oppose the $7,440 stipends that would keep students afloat while they work off up to $10,000 in college tuition.

Still, even the critics accept the basic justice of the proposal in a way that promises to save it from turning into just another case of political wheeling and dealing. Of all the promises made during the campaign, this is one that has not been forgotten, one that deserves to be kept.

Clinton's description of the program as a domestic Peace Corps is not mere hype. Good sense and idealism coexist at a bargain price, all things considered, certainly on the scale of Stealth bombers. (The plan's first-year price tag is about $400 million.)

After noting the absence of a honeymoon period for his administration, President Clinton summed up the favorable response to the plan with a certain justified satisfaction. "We have known for a long time that national service will bring Americans together," he said. "It's good to see that it brings Congress together as well."

Furthermore, by giving students a socially useful way to pay back tuition, national service sets a small but imaginative precedent for balancing the government's books.

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