THE US Senate and House of Representatives are now going off in two directions on the new defense budget for fiscal year 1985. Given the extent of the nation's economic challenge - with massive budget deficits projected for the years ahead - the more modest House approach is the better version.
During the days and weeks ahead the two chambers will wrap up final action on their respective measures - prior to a joint conference committee session later this year. Lawmakers still have time to reconcile some of their differences on the floor of each chamber before the conference meetings. A reconciliation of such differences appears daunting. But the effort should be made.
Here's why the House approach makes better sense:
* Cost: The House is working toward a smaller defense package that is expected to provide for about a 5 percent real increase in defense spending, yet continues ongoing programs. By contrast, the Senate version, adopted last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, authorizes $299 billion for the Pentagon and military-related programs of the Department of Energy. That is a 7.5 percent real increase over 1984, adjusted for inflation. Although less than the 13 percent real increase originally sought by the White House, it is almost identical with the administration's revised budget proposal.
* Balance: The House version links funding for a number of strategic weapons programs to progress on the arms control front. Take the MX missile: The Senate committee approved 21 new missiles; the House, 15 missiles. But the House voted to freeze the funds until next April 1 - and even then production would go ahead only if the Soviets had not returned to the negotiating table. The Senate version has no such restriction.
Interestingly, both branches of Congress are in almost general agreement on funding for conventional weapons. At the same time, both chambers unwisely exceed White House requests on several programs ( calling for more M-1 tanks, for example, than requested by the White House). The Senate committee did the same thing by seeking one more nuclear attack submarine than the four called for by the White House. Congress should at least stay within administration requests.
What is now needed is a period of steady, sustained military buildup - following the crash programs of the past few years. The House approach comes closest to meeting that objective.