THE rent is due. The refrigerator is getting empty. The children need new shoes.Well, wait for the next paycheck. But there's been no paycheck for more than six months, and now unemployment insurance has run out, too. The cupboard is really bare. That is the sometimes desperate situation facing 3 million out-of-work Americans who have exhausted their 26 weeks of unemployment benefits this year. Their numbers grow by 300,000 a month. To ease their plight, the House has passed legislation to provide up to 20 extra weeks of benefits. The Senate is considering a parallel bill. Democrats are optimistic that Congress could override a presidential veto. President Bush signed a similar measure last month, but then effectively nullified it by refusing to approve the emergency spending. He and other opponents argue that the $6.3 billion price tag would drive up the federal deficit and break the budget agreement Congress and the White House made last fall. Extending benefits is unnecessary, they say, because the recession is ending. But tell that to a frustrated job-seeker still waiting for signs of a recovery. Even if the economy has bottomed out, economists claim it usually takes months before the labor market rebounds enough to reduce the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Mr. Bush's reluctance to increase the deficit is understandable. But providing additional assistance would do more than keep jobless workers and their families from slipping into poverty. By sustaining a demand for goods and services in hard-hit areas, it could have positive effects on the economy as a whole. Democratic Rep. Thomas Downey of New York, chief sponsor of the House bill, sums up what he sees as a moral imperative: "We've spent billions to bail out the S&Ls. We've helped Kurds in Turkey. We've helped the Bangladeshis. It's time to help Americans." Mr. Bush faces criticism for appearing to care more about foreign affairs than domestic issues. A presidential signature to extend unemployment benefits would reassure the American public that he knows where charity begins.