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New AmeriCorps Director Seeks To Find Common Ground

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Harris Wofford appeared to be taking charge of a sinking ship when President Clinton swore him in as the new director of the embattled AmeriCorps national-service program earlier this month.

But the program's prospects have brightened in recent weeks as some prominent Republican critics have entered into talks and toned down their rhetoric.

"My hope is that, with Harris Wofford now heading AmeriCorps, there will be an opportunity to work together," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, a leading critic, said at a hearing last week.

He said he could support retaining AmeriCorps if the nonfederal share of program costs rose to 50 percent from current minimum levels of 15 percent to 25 percent.

Mr. Wofford said after the hearing that he would consider a plan to reach that level over five years, as well as adding a college-scholarship program for low-income, unpaid volunteers, an idea Mr. Grassley had advocated.

Both the House and Senate have passed spending bills that would stop funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs several service programs, including AmeriCorps, one of President Clinton's most prized initiatives. The corporation got $575 million in fiscal 1995.

And even if negotiations succeed in rescuing some fiscal 1996 funding, the programs must be reauthorized early next year.

Mr. Wofford, a former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania who lost his re-election bid last year, has wasted no time in renewing old acquaintances. Even before being sworn in as the corporation's chief executive officer, he was working behind the scenes with his predecessor, Eli J. Segal, to find common ground with Republicans.

The effort appears to have met with some success, as GOP lawmakers spoke last week of improving and downsizing AmeriCorps, rather than killing it.

"I never wanted to see it eliminated," Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees AmeriCorps, told The Washington Times. "I have a number of questions, though, about how the program is managed."

Broadening the Base

"We want you to improve the program, eliminate politics, and cut costs," Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., said at the AmeriCorps hearing, held by the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee's subcommittee on oversight.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, was one of a few Republicans who voted for the bill to create AmeriCorps, but has since become a critic.

"I must regretfully say I feel betrayed by AmeriCorps," he said. "Having the federal government attempt to run one of the largest volunteer organizations in this nation makes no sense."

But Mr. Hoekstra has been meeting with AmeriCorps officials to discuss ways to save the program, and he focused his remarks on its size, complaining that it has grown beyond its initial charge of supplementing local service projects.

About 25,000 AmeriCorps members will work in more than 400 local programs this year. Members get a monthly living stipend of $600, health benefits, and $4,725 for education costs in exchange for one year of service.

A national conference on volunteerism held here last week also focused on efforts to broaden the base of support for such programs.

"On one hand, you get upset because funding has dwindled so much," said Ramee Richards, a program coordinator for the Los Angeles Youth Empowerment Project. "But it has opened dialogue because we have to collaborate to get things done."

In kicking off the gathering, Mr. Wofford urged proponents of service programs to reach out to critics and promote lifelong volunteerism.

"The bureaucratic, top-down approach of 'We're telling you what's good for you' is killing people," he said.

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