The Republicans' Role

THE first response from Republican leaders to President Clinton's comprehensive budget-reduction plan has been sharply critical. Some have likened it to "warmed-over Carterism," and others say it is simply Democratic "tax and spend" all over again.

But in the next days and weeks, the rank and file Republicans on Capitol Hill will have to think more carefully about their own role in the challenge Mr. Clinton has set forth. Despite the shrill one-liners from some minority members, the president has not given the Republicans as clear a target as they first thought Monday when Clinton talked about tax increases. The shared sacrifice and specificity in the plan are both fair and serious enough to force critics to be specific themselves.

What was striking about House Minority Leader Robert Michel's televised response to the president is that it said almost nothing about the central idea of Clinton's speech - dealing with a deficit and a national debt that jeopardize the future prosperity of the country. If this is not a real problem, then it is up to the Republicans to say why it is not. The issue is sensitive to the GOP because it raises the legacy of the past 12 years, when the debt and deficit more than tripled. Republicans have taken

credit for economic growth during that period, while blaming the Democratic Congress for federal deficits. But credit and blame are due both parties.

Republicans can keep Clinton accountable for the deficit reduction he outlines. If the main Republican cry, as Representative Michel said, is to "insist on cutting spending," the Republicans ought to outline specifically what they would cut. The country would benefit from an active GOP that helps slice Democratic pork in Congress. Will the GOP do this - or snipe from the sidelines? The health-care juggernaut is surely a place to start.

Will Republican leaders join in? Can Jesse Helms cut tobacco subsidies? Can Robert Dole find any farm subsidy money? Can Phil Gramm cut part of the $54 billion supercollider in Texas? What about capping cost-of-living adjustments for military officer pensions? The national debt costs taxpayers $200 billion a year - and growing - in interest. That must change. What will Republicans do?

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