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National Service Reauthorization Act--Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KERRY. Madam President, let me begin by thanking the Senator from Utah, whose leadership on this effort has been absolutely spectacular and who obviously, from the words he just spoke, has a deeply personal and historical understanding of the importance of this kind of service. We are all very grateful to him for his partnership with my colleague, Senator Kennedy, and for the leadership he has offered along the way. I would concur with every word he has spoken about it, all of the good things he said it would do. I couldn't agree more. It will do all those things and more. This is one of the better moments and better bills for which we get an opportunity as Senators to vote.

May I also thank Senator Mikulski. She has been tenacious and unbelievably engaged and enthusiastic and wonderful in her commitment to help bring us to this moment. I know how much Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch both value the contribution she has made. We all value it. We are grateful to her for stepping in. She has been a tiger. Perish the thought for anybody who has wanted to run counter to her intent to get this done.

I want to speak for a couple moments. I yield myself perhaps 5 minutes. I think we have about 7 1/2 remaining.

This effort we will vote on is going to generate the largest expansion in national service since President Kennedy inspired the creation of VISTA and the Peace Corps. For many of us in public life today, that was the formative moment. That was the demarcation point that excited many of us about public service and brought a lot of us into this arena.

It is particularly fitting that this legislation comes at a time when a new President is inspiring a whole new era of volunteerism, much as President Kennedy did nearly half a century ago. It is equally fitting and appropriate that this legislation bears the name of our friend and beloved colleague, my senior Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy. As President Obama observed in his first address to Congress, Senator Kennedy is ``an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country.'' It was under Senator Kennedy's leadership as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that this bill was crafted.

This is nothing new for Senator Kennedy. In 1990, Senator Kennedy worked with the first President Bush to pass the original National Community Service Act, the Thousand Points of Light Foundation. President Bush called that particular effort, helped by Senator Kennedy, the hallmark of his Presidency. When President Clinton needed a champion for the proposed Corporation for National Community Service, he didn't have to look any further than Ted Kennedy.

As Senator Kennedy notes, ``Service is a bipartisan goal.'' Indeed, Members of Congress from across the political spectrum have pledged their support for this measure, which is a clear indication that the ethic of service is spawned not by faithfulness to party but by devotion to country and community.

The Serve America Act is also the work of our colleague from Utah, Senator Orrin Hatch. Senator Hatch has on many occasions been Ted Kennedy's partner in these kinds of bipartisan efforts. Senator Hatch points out that volunteer service is the lifeblood of our Nation and that it benefits the volunteer as much, if not more, than the country the volunteer is serving. We just heard those words a moment ago from Senator Hatch when he talked about his own experience as a young person, about the mission for faith that he called the greatest of his life. Service is what has always made America, America.

Many times in 2004, when I was running for President, I talked about de Tocqueville's visit to our country and how he found something special here. He wrote about it. He wrote that ``America is great because Americans are good.'' What he meant by that was he had observed this extraordinary spirit of voluntarism, a kind of patriotism that was defined by Americans who would voluntarily give back to their community or help other people or do something openly on behalf of their country and that community. He clearly had not seen or witnessed that kind of giving in his experience in Europe.

Just as it was in de Tocqueville's day, Americans in many ways, big and small, are looking for opportunities to do more for their country. Last year, 62 million Americans gave 8 billion hours of service to the country. Last month, AmeriCorps had tripled the number of applications over the same month as a year ago. I note that my own kids who graduated recently from college commented to me how so many of their classmates in college were all engaged in some kind of local activity, not necessarily fighting on the national stage, but they were involved mentoring kids or helping in a homeless shelter. Indeed, many of our colleges and universities across the country boast unbelievably high percentages of voluntarism.

They are sending us a signal, telling us why this is a good moment to create a new corps of 175,000 volunteers who are going to be organized and assist in their efforts to do the things we need to do in America. That means that in addition to the other volunteer programs, we will have as many as a quarter of a million Americans serving full time or part time working to meet some of our most pressing challenges: modernizing schools, building homes, serving as mentors or tutors in schools, helping with the sick in hospitals and clinics. And with the Serve America Act, it is going to be a lot easier for professionals and retirees, the baby boomers, the people who were first challenged by President Kennedy's call to service in 1961, it is going to be much easier for them to get involved once again.

So we face great challenges. We should have no illusion about the magnitude of those challenges.

But we also have extraordinary opportunities staring us in the face. With the Serve America Act, with more Americans involved, with Americans pulling together, I am confident that is going to be the definition of America's future, and it will be a definition we will all be proud of.

So I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this important piece of legislation. I pay tribute, again, to my colleague, Ted Kennedy, and his partners in this effort, Senator Mikulski and Senator Hatch, who have brought us to this time. Thank you.

I yield the floor and reserve the remainder of our time.


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