President Barack Obama urged Americans Tuesday to follow the example of Sens. Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy — whom he praised as a radiant example of people who overcome differences to serve their country together in friendship.
That came as Obama signed a bill they sponsored, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. It authorizes spending $5.7 billion to expand or create a variety of national service programs, including tripling the size of AmeriCorps from 75,000 positions to 250,000. It has been a sort of going-away honor for Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer.
Obama said, "More than anyone else, the new era of service we enter in today has been made possible by the unlikely friendship between these two men, Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy. They may be the odd couple of the Senate. One's a conservative Republican from Utah. The other is, well, Ted Kennedy."
Obama added, "But time and again they've placed partnership over partisanship to advance this nation even in times we were told that wasn't possible" as they have worked together on scores of bills through the years. This may be the last one they will push together.
Obama said, "Sen. Hatch was shaped by his experiences as a young missionary serving others, a period he has called the greatest of his life.
"And last year he approached Sen. Kennedy to share his ideas about service. Out of that conversation came this legislation. And last month at Sen. Hatch's selfless request, the Senate unanimously chose to name this bill after his dear friend Ted," the president said.
Obama used the signing of the bill as an opportunity to challenge Americans to give more service.
"A week from tomorrow marks the 100th day of my administration. In those next eight days, I ask every American to make an enduring commitment to serving your community and your country in whatever way you can," he said.
Obama led the way by planting trees at a park later in the day along with his wife, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and others. "It's as simple as that. All that's required on your part is a willingness to make a difference," he said.
Obama added, "We need your service, right now at this moment in history. I'm not going to tell you what your role should be. That's for you to discover. But I'm asking you to stand up and play your part. I'm asking you to help change history's course, put your shoulder up against the wheel."
He added, "If you do, I promise you your life will be richer, our country will be stronger, and someday years from now you may remember as the moment when your own story and the American story converged."
Obama also said the bill is "the boldest expansion of opportunities to serve our communities and our country since the creation of Americorps," and is appropriately named for a man "who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country."
Hatch and Kennedy sat to the side of Obama as he spoke at a boarding school for underprivileged children. As Obama signed the bill into law, he handed the first two pens to Kennedy and Hatch.
After the ceremony, Hatch praised the bill as "a significant milestone for America."
He said, "During a tough economic time for our country, it is important that we do not rely on government aid to solve every problem. This bill is founded on the fundamental belief in the power of the American people to improve their country and communities at the local level; it will increase opportunities for Americans to serve and, thus, increase personal and community responsibility."
Obama noted that when he spoke to a joint session of Congress in February, he asked it to quickly pass the bill — and praised it for doing so.
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