THE $1.6 trillion budget for 1996 that President Clinton introduced this past week was greeted with less than unbridled enthusiasm. It ''lacks courage,'' House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R) of Ohio complained.
But Clinton has shown budgetary courage before, with an economic plan that included $500 billion in deficit reduction -- and gotten remarkably little political credit for it.
Nor, when the plan finally made it through Congress, did he have a single Republican vote, as budget director Alice Rivlin has not been shy about pointing out. Moreover, the Republicans haven't shown how they would do any better.
Now, however, there is a Republican alternative, or at least the beginnings of one. Freshman Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, on assignment from Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, has been reviewing federal spending programs in search of savings.
He proposes such politically ''impossible'' items as decreased cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security; it's not clear how they will fare in the Senate's final budget, but Mr. Gregg deserves credit at least for outlining a plan, and for not imagining the budget can be balanced just by trimming foreign aid and welfare.
There is ''heavy lifting'' required here, and it is hard to square either the $200 billion tax cuts congressional Republicans are talking about or the president's more modest but still questionable $63 billion tax cuts with the kind of serious budgetary discipline the country needs.
As Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin pointed out in the Monitor last week, there are polling data to indicate that voters would prefer deficit reduction to tax cuts. This is like hearing that the children are clamoring for seconds on broccoli, but the legislative and the executive branches should give ear.
A note in passing: Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California and former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire are to be commended not only for the substance but for the tone of their recent exchange on entitlement cuts on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
Instead of a polarizing debate, they had the kind of genuine discussion that seemed to move the thinking of both men and their listeners forward.
This is the approach that will be needed in the long budget season ahead.