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Silver 50-cent piece; can a famous face ease U.S. debt?

Bewigged and somewhat grim, George Washington's famous face radiates fiscal responsibility. In their hearts, Americans know the father of their country would never have bounced checks or run his MasterCard over the limit. Perhaps that is why his visage has graced so much money, from a silver dollar struck in 1900 to today's quarter and $1 bill.

Now, the federal government may cash in on George's respectable image to reduce the national debt. Legislation that would authorize minting 10 million silver half dollars, in commemoration of Washington's 250th birthday next year, already has cleared the House of Representatives. The coins would be sold above face value, and profits would be used exclusively to help pay off the money America owes its creditors.

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"President Washington has played an important role in the coinage of our nation," explains Rep. Frank Annunzio (D) of Illinois, a cosponsor of the bill. "This legislation will not only honor the father of our country, but will also give Americans an opportunity to own silver without having to pay enormous prices for the metal."

George's fiscally proper face -- stamped on coins sold for their silver value plus a 20 percent surcharge -- should turn a profit of $10 million to $15 million, Congressman Annunzio figures.

Of course, when you are talking about a national debt of more than $914 billion, paying off a few million seems like sending a Boy Scout out to cut down Sequoia National Forest with his pocket knife.

"But we have to start someplace," says Annunzio, "and since President Washington was a champion of fiscal responsibility, his commemorative coin is an ideal place to start."

The US has not offered a completely new commemorative coin since 1954. Prior to that, all it took to issue one was an acquiescent congressman. Over the years the US Mint has struck coins honoring such events as the Bridgeport, Conn. , Centennial, and the building of the Cincinnati Music Center. In 1936 the mint produced 34 varieties of 21 different coins. The Oregon Trail memorial was minted in a not-quite-limited edition for eight years.

But a Washington memorial half dollar would be very attractive to collectors, says George Hatie, president of the American Numismatic Association.

"Other countries import commemorative coins into our country," Mr. Hatie says. "As a result, we export money. This would bring money in."

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Hatie thinks the government would have no problem selling the 10 million coins. In fact, he says the Susan B. Anthony dollar might have been more marketable if it had been a commemorative issue instead of a regular coin dif ficult to differentiate from a quarter.

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