CONGRESS and President Clinton now have about six weeks to bridge their differences and pass a budget. Plenty of room for compromise exists, but the president and the most conservative faction of House Republicans (including most of the freshman class) must both realize they won't get all they want. The president in most cases can't command a simple majority of congressional votes. The House conservatives can't come up with the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto.
How the battle ends depends on the interplay among several power centers. The compromises will probably be worked out in the Senate, and the president and House Republicans will have to swallow hard and accept them.
The president set the wrong tone last week when he vetoed the legislative-branch appropriations bill. In that measure, Congress practiced what it preaches, trimming $200 million from its own funding. We opposed killing the Office of Technology Assessment, but we nonetheless believe Mr. Clinton should have signed a bill he said he favored. He can teach Congress a lesson elsewhere. (Oddly, he signed a military operations bill he criticized as $479 million too much.)
The debate should go on within the following boundaries:
* The budget should be balanced in seven years. That's long enough to let the economy and the public get through deficit detox.
* A tax cut should be secondary and should be passed only when it's clear that funding it won't undermine seven-year budget balancing or unfairly impact the poor and elderly. That means, among other things, a tougher line on surviving pork-barrel projects like the B-2 bomber.
* House and Senate Republicans should get off the stick and pass the line-item veto they promised. If past presidents had the power to eliminate waste in the budget, the country might not be in such a fiscal mess.
On specific bills:
Reconciliation. This bill covers taxes and entitlements. Clinton has endorsed the reasonable welfare-reform package passed by the Senate. House Republicans want to eliminate payments to teenagers who have children. While something must be done to break the cycle of children having children, the House should adopt the Senate bill and look for another approach on the problem of repeat teen pregnancy.
Major reform of Medicare is needed, which the GOP bill addresses and the congressional Democrats' proposal does not. The House Republicans' bill probably goes too far. The president's proposed cuts move in the right direction but are insufficient for deficit cutting purposes. A compromise ought to be possible between the GOP and White House.
The president should accept the Medicaid-reform package, which sends funds to the states as block grants on condition they keep coverage for some disadvantaged groups.
Defense. GOP pro- lifers in the House joined with Democrats opposed to the B-2 and the Seawolf submarine to defeat a compromise. Denying abortions to US military personnel overseas that they can legally obtain at home penalizes citizens for serving their country; the Defense bill is not the place to decide the controversial issue of abortion. We'd rather not spend for more B-2s, but that's part of the deal. If the bill gets over these obstacles, the president should sign it.
Commerce, Justice, State, Judiciary. Commerce is not the department we would have eliminated first, but the country can do without it as long as certain agencies (the weather service and the census, for example) continue. Legal aid to the poor has properly survived, although with cuts. We think foreign aid is being cut too much. But the president should withdraw his veto threat on the condition that the Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Development Agency, and the US Information Agency are not disbanded.
Interior. The president should veto this bill unless provisions damaging to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act are eliminated. Cuts to the Fish and Wildlife Service may be unwise, but not reason enough to kill the whole bill. Sweetheart deals for mining companies on federal lands should be buried.
Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The House bill, which eliminates 50 educational and training programs, including $10.9 billion in student loans, is too severe. Some cuts are necessary, however: The president should negotiate on the basis of the Senate version, which is wending its way to the floor.
Veterans' Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Independent Agencies. The president will certainly veto this bill unless his pet AmeriCorps project is restored. We suggest saving it with an increasing emphasis on private funding. Instead of just whacking at the Superfund, Congress would do better to rethink and re-fund the entire program. The Environmental Protection Agency will have to take some cuts, but most of its regulatory authority should be left intact. Curbs on the Clean Air Act should be scrubbed.
House Republicans and President Clinton will have to accept Senate compromises.