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Bush's shell game


Despite all the fancy econo-talk predicting the recession's end, the fact is 3 million Americans have been out of work for more than half a year, and every month 300,000 people exhaust their unemployment benefits, which are provided for 26 weeks.

In response, the Senate, following the House lead, overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday to extend benefits for up 20 weeks so workers can try to hang on to their houses and cars, pay their bills and feed their children until they get back on their feet. But President Bush is threatening to veto it, as he did a similar measure last August, on the grounds that the $6.3 billion price tag will increase the federal deficit and, therefore, the burden on taxpayers.

The budget agreement does, in fact, allow for such deficit financing -- if the president signs a declaration of emergency. But Bush refuses. Democrats, for their part, have rightly attacked the administration's willingness to dole out foreign aid at the expense of helping Americans. After all, if millions of Americans, without work or unemployment benefits do not constitute a national emergency, then what does?

Social arguments aside, however, Bush is engaging in the most fallacious thinking: The choice is not between extending unemployment benefits or paying nothing at all. It is between paying unemployment benefits or paying welfare benefits. And opting for the latter merely shifts the fiscal -- and tax -- burden from the federal level to the states. Only yesterday it was revealed that in Maryland, the number of people receiving both Aid to Families with Dependent Children and General Public Assistance has skyrocketed in the last two years. And Carolyn Colvin, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, says that until the economy improves the number of people seeking state government help will continue to rise.

Bush's argument -- that an extension of unemployment benefits is simply not affordable -- is merely the old Reagan shell game repackaged for the recession. One of those who clearly recognizes this is Maryland's senior senator, Paul Sarbanes, who has been an outspoken advocate of extending unemployment benefits from the start.

We hope Sarbanes will continue the fight, and that Congress will respond with a measure of compassion and common sense -- and override the president's threatened veto.

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