The Budget: Grimace and Swallow

CUTTING the deficit, Sen. Phil Gramm says, is like going to heaven: Everyone wants to get there, but no one wants to pay the price. As a theological axiom, Senator Gramm's quip is too sweeping, but the political point is well taken. It is being demonstrated again this week, as critics from every part of the political spectrum have stepped forward to condemn the budget agreement hammered out last weekend between congressional and White House negotiators. The plan aims to trim $40 billion from the federal budget deficit this year and $500 billion over five years.

Many Republicans are harrumphing about proposals to raise the gasoline tax and excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol. Meanwhile, many Democrats are grumbling over certain spending cuts, including limits on Medicare, and over reports that the new excise burdens will fall most heavily on low- and moderate-income taxpayers.

President Bush and the Republican leaders in Congress, on the one hand, and the Democratic leaders, on the other, have their hands full trying to keep disenchanted party members on board the budget express. After a meeting with GOP mavericks Tuesday, the president went on television that night to drum up support for the compromise.

In the end, though, Congress is likely to approve the package of taxes and spending cuts, if only because the alternative is so worrisome. If the congressional rank and file disavow their leaders' handiwork, the Gramm-Rudman scythe will sweep through the budget, making deep and disruptive across-the-board cuts in national spending.

The compromise is not perfect. The new taxes do indeed appear to be slightly regressive, and the package includes some ``growth incentives'' for small businesses that some analysts fear are Trojan horses for new tax shelters. The defense budget probably could take a heftier cut than the $10 billion proposed.

Still, the negotiators - after months of arduous haggling - managed to spread the discomfort quite evenly among taxpaying groups. Bush finally gave up on his cherished proposal to cut capital gains taxes, and wealthy taxpayers will feel the hit from new levies on luxury items and from limits on deductions. Farm subsidies, which go to megafarmers more than to family farmers, are being trimmed back.

It's hard to fathom what the congressional quibblers expected. Do GOP dissidents, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, truly think we can balance the nation's books without some additional taxes - or are they just playing irresponsible politics? And Democrats can't honestly believe that programs like Medicare, important as they are, will be forever sacrosanct in an era of enormous deficits.

Given the political realities, the budget negotiators came up with a fair, even statesmanlike, plan. The lawmakers - even in this election autumn - should put the national interest above politics and approve it.

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