The Search for Cuts

FIRMLY in the driver's seat in Washington, Democrats are working to show that they can be a party of fiscal responsibility and that legislative gridlock has loosened its grip on the capital.

The House and Senate budget committees are drafting budget resolutions that would cut federal spending over five years by from $63 billion to nearly $90 billion more than President Clinton called for last month.

These efforts keep the budget process moving in the right direction: Many lawmakers were rightly concerned Mr. Clinton's package of tax increases and spending cuts did not cut spending deeply enough - especially in light of the $31 billion stimulus package that Clinton also seeks. Without deeper cuts, Clinton risked losing support among conservative Democrats, whose constituents were dissatisfied with the efforts to trim spending.

The need now is to continue pushing toward the $90 billion end of the range. Remember the Congressional Budget Office, the agency Republicans hooted and Clinton defended during the president's message to a joint session of Congress last month? Recently it looked closer at Clinton's package and noted that it would fall $67 billion short of the president's five-year deficit-reduction goal - lost ground that needs to be made up.

The House Budget Committee seeks to cut spending $63 billion beyond Clinton's original plan. Some early targets for deeper cuts: science, space, and defense.

The Senate Budget Committee is said to be considering deficit targets that would trim the budget shortfall by up to $90 billion more than does Clinton's proposal. In doing so, it is looking for $1 in spending cuts for every 75 cents in tax or fee increases. That begins to edge closer to Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta's early desire to post $2 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases - a goal the Clinton team eventually backed away from.

Lawmakers also are right to look for ways to scale back Clinton's stimulus package. The "investment" package is worthwhile; but it would be harder to defend if the president and Congress failed to hit even his original deficit target.

At this stage, lawmakers are working on the broad outlines of spending cuts and tax increases. After House and Senate versions are reconciled, the detailed work will follow in appropriations committees. It is important that the momentum for further cuts carry the process. Otherwise, Washington could yet again become the target for accusations of smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and the the public's desire for fiscal responsibility would be thwarted.

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