Battle over Jobless Benefits


President Bush's painful efforts to stave off a budget-busting Democratic bid to extend unemployment benefits could come a cropper as the long-promised recovery fails to materialize. Signs of weakness in the economy coincide with House and Senate approval of $6 billion measures that the Republican president has vowed to veto. The showdown this month will be the first real issues-oriented battle of the 1992 run for the White House.

Mr. Bush had counted on a clear bounce-back from recession to counter his political opponents. Instead, declining consumer confidence, flatness in the housing market, a fall in orders for durable goods and rising demand for unemployment compensation give the Democrats ammunition to argue that a domestic "emergency" exists that is every bit as compelling as the "emergencies" Mr. Bush declared to aid beleaguered foreigners.

This seductive mixture of apples and oranges puts GOP legislators on the spot. They may know intellectually that U.S. world leadership imposes requirements materially different from domestic needs. But they are also hearing from constituents -- especially articulate white-collar voters -- who feel entitled to greater government help.

In the crucial Senate roll-call this week, 13 Republicans deserted the president to approve the extension of the 26-week limit on jobless benefits by as many as 20 weeks (probably 10 in Maryland). This provided a theoretically veto-proof margin of 69-30 for passage. But the White House remained outwardly confident that three or four Republicans could be lured back, thus giving Mr. Bush his 12th straight victory in an override fight.

The danger for the president is that this could be a Pyrrhic victory if the recovery remains flabby to non-existent. The downturn has already lasted more than a year. As an estimated 300,000 workers exhaust their benefits each month, thus adding to welfare roles, the number of financially strapped voters grows to formidable proportions. This was a message brought back to Washington by lawmakers after visits home during the August recess.

Before the Labor Day break, members of Congress gave themselves a cheap vote by approving a benefits-extension bill that Mr. Bush could sign and then nullify by refusing to declare an "emergency." This time House members retaliated with a measure the president has to implement or veto, and the Senate is expected to go along. There will be no dodge, no political sleight of hand.

Given this unhappy situation, what should the president do? We believe some extension of benefits is in order. Funds so distributed will put money into the pockets of hard-pressed consumers who will have to spend it quickly, thus providing undergirding for the economy. But Mr. Bush should stick to his stand that such outlays must be offset by added revenues or cuts in other domestic programs. Otherwise, last year's deficit-fighting budget agreement will become the latest victim of fiscal irresponsibility along the Potomac.

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