Awake at the Switch

TRAIN wrecks aren't inevitable. Judgment and prompt action can avoid them, whether on the rails or in Washington. Collision imagery seems to have a lock on Washington right now because congressional Republicans and the president have sharply different concepts of how to brake the federal budget this year and over the next decade.

The much predicted crash would come if President Clinton refuses, probably in mid-November, to sign a budget reconciliation bill to which has been coupled a measure lifting the limit on the national debt. Failure to enact the latter would presage a shutdown of federal offices to prevent default. The key question: which brakeman blinks.

By Oct. 1, just three weeks down the line, 13 appropriations bills, funding all branches of government, are supposed to be ready for presidential signature. Among the weightier cars in this legislative train:

Welfare reform. As we've noted before, work requirements are the essence here, and they are supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Difficulties arise over such specifics as forcing states to maintain a certain level of welfare spending, aid for teen-aged mothers, and funding for child care.

Compromises are possible on these issues, but time is short. Unfortunately, welfare reform is likely to be folded into November's budget reconciliation package and arrive on Clinton's desk as part of an ultimatum.

Medicare and Medicaid. Even more than welfare, these are spending areas that must be curtailed if there is to be any hope of arriving at a balanced budget on the Republicans' schedule, by the year 2002. Likely changes in Medicare, which serves older Americans, revolve around managed-care options, vouchers, means-testing, and tighter lids on fees paid doctors and hospitals. The central issue for Medicaid, which serves the poor and disabled, is how many strings to attach to block grants given the states.

Here, too, there's broad consensus on the need to control spending. But the political heat, particularly surrounding Medicare, is intense. A compromise between Clinton's proposed cut and the larger GOP proposal - probably closer to the latter - makes sense in any attempt to balance the needs of the current elderly and those of future generations.

Education and training. Funding for Head Start and School-to-Work transition programs is small change compared with what the health-care entitlements absorb. But such programs figure prominently in White House veto plans.

The House has lopped off large chunks of spending in these areas. Moderate Republicans in the Senate are poised to join Democrats in protecting some of this spending. Here, also, flexibility could pay off - both in tempering the veto threat and sustaining programs of proven worth.

Defense. The last three secretaries of defense and their joint chiefs have done a heroic job of downsizing the services in a time of reduced major threat but uncertain lesser threats and unfamiliar peacekeeping roles. The GOP majority should recognize this by postponing its push to spend billions on a strategic-missile-defense system and more B-2 bombers. That would help GOP budget-balancing.

Political calculations will sway much of what Congress and the White House do in coming weeks. But the voting public is not likely to be impressed by either side if deadlock prevails this fall.

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