By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
NEW YORK -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy, sidelined from the Senate as he undergoes treatment for a malignant brain tumor, plans to introduce a sweeping new national service bill tomorrow to recruit 175,000 Americans of all ages to do service work in health, education, environmental protection and anti-poverty programs, with their work partly subsidized by the federal government.
The plan, meant to build on national service initiatives that began under former President Kennedy and expanded under former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, would provide an estimated $5 billion over five years to encourage citizens from kindergarteners to retirees to get involved in community organizations -- including faith-based groups -- on a series of programs targeted at national problems.
The new corps members would be paid modest salaries to spend a year working on specific national problems. Employers would be eligible for tax cuts for giving workers time off to do community service, while a new venture capital fund would also be created to boost the creation of new service organizations.
The measure is the first major piece of legislation the ailing Massachusetts lawmaker has presented since being diagnosed with a brain tumor in May. While the senator does not plan to return to Washington full-time until January, staff and colleagues say he has been working assiduously from his home in Cape Cod, following legislation, talking to fellow senators, and sponsoring amendments to bills.
The service plan - crafted by Kennedy over the past eight months with Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah -- is meant to marry the two parties' often competing approaches to community service, encouraging the volunteerism advocated by many Republicans while providing federal financial assistance requested by some Democrats.
"What this bill is saying is, we need both,'' said Alan Khazei, founder of City Year, a Boston-based youth community service group and a chief advocate of the new bill.
The measure will be unveiled tomorrow in concert with a national symposium on national service in New York. Former President Bush -- who initiated a "1,000 Points of Light'' program to encourage volunteerism -- and former President Clinton, who helped create Americorp, a federally funded program to encourage national service -- are set to appear in videos touting the benefits of community work. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President Kennedy, is scheduled to be at the event along with Queen Noor of Jordan, dozens of military officials and numerous members of Congress and community activists.
Current national service programs are working well, Kennedy staffers said, and the new plan would build on them. The Peace Corps, President Kennedy's program to help developing countries with basic needs, would also be expanded.
But the new plan, staffers said on condition of anonymity, would be aimed at people of all ages. While many volunteer programs now attract young college graduates willing to work for low salaries before settling into better-paid job, the Kennedy-Hatch plan would give older Baby Boomers an opportunity to take time off for community service, perhaps transitioning into a second career.
Retired people generally not sought out by community service organizations would be encouraged to get involved and eligible for an "Encore Fellowship'' to extend their tenures beyond one year. Schoolchildren, meanwhile, would be taught to incorporate a "lifetime of service'' into their lives, starting with smaller efforts such as food drives, aides said.
Kennedy has been absent from Washington since May, except for a single appearance to cast a dramatic, determinate vote on a measure to block scheduled cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. The Massachusetts lawmaker also made a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention last month in Denver, despite having awoken the morning of his address with kidney stones.
But Kennedy has continued to work despite his illness, issuing dozens of statements and signing onto several bills and amendments since he became ill.
Khazei said Kennedy has been working on the national service plan consistently since January, eager to take advantage of interest shown by both John McCain and Barack Obama, their parties' respective presidential nominees.
"He hasn't skipped a beat. He hasn't missed a day. He get more done from the Cape than most of us do in a week,'' Khazei said. "He's a hero.''
"It's appropriate that he's doing legislation on public service, because Ted Kennedy symbolizes public service," said Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat. "It's inspiring."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.