WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted for the biggest boost in public service since President John F. Kennedy urged Americans in 1961 to "ask what you can do for your country."
Divided over efforts to stem greed and abuse on Wall Street and to carve out a budget amid economic crisis, the Senate showed rare unity in approving -- by a vote of 78-20 -- a $5.7 billion bill to enlist Americans to help the needy at home and abroad amid the global recession.
The House of Representatives approved a similar measure last week.
Lawmakers must resolve differences in the legislation before the Democratic-led Congress can pass a final bill and send it to Democratic President Barack Obama, who has promised to sign it into law.
Kennedy's younger brother, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, joined Republican Senator Orrin Hatch as chief sponsors of the measure.
"This legislation represents the best of America's ideals -- offering a helping hand to our neighbors and to our country," Senator Kennedy said, echoing the sentiment of his brother who was killed by an assassin in 1963.
"This is going to be monumental," Hatch said.
At a cost of $5.7 billion over five years, the measure would establish and expand community service programs to work in education and healthcare, respond to disasters, provide opportunities for low-income individuals and help military veterans as well as developing countries.
AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs, would carry out much of the work and would have its workforce more than tripled to 250,000.
Members of AmeriCorps receive a stipend to help cover expenses as well as an annual award to help with education costs that, under the bill, would increase to $5,350 from $4,725. Those over 55 could give the award to a child or grandchild.
In his inaugural address as the 35th U.S. president on January 20, 1961, Kennedy made a plea for public service that became a signature line of his administration.
"My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," he said.
Two months later, Kennedy established the Peace Corps to provide Americans an opportunity to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.
Shortly after Kennedy was killed, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, created VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, as part of Johnson's "War on Poverty."
(Editing by Frances Kerry)