Budget Ignition

POLITICALLY, critical mass was reached late last week. Republicans in the House recognized their position on the government shutdown was becoming untenable and devised a plan to get much of the federal machinery moving again.

Barely was the ink dry on that deal before President Clinton came through with a plan to balance the budget by 2002, validated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). That had been the Republican demand for weeks - as well as Mr. Clinton's earlier promise. He, too, was feeling the heat.

Will the sides now do the possible and promptly arrive at a compromise on the basis of their two plans? If they don't, the shutdown could resume after Jan. 26.

The plans have both huge differences and hopeful convergences. Take the tax cut. The Republicans propose $240 billion over seven years. The president, who is fielding a revised version of a budget blueprint drawn by Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, suggests $87 billion. The lower tax cut would offset Clinton's much kinder cuts in health, education, and other domestic areas.

We'd prefer to see the tax cut junked altogether, so that the work of deficit reduction can proceed free of that largely political encumbrance. The president's figure, at least, points toward reasonable compromise.

On the major health entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid, Clinton treads lightly - probably too lightly. These programs have to be reined in if there's to be any chance of taming the federal budget. Elements of the Republican plan should prevail here, but the negotiating will be intense, with campaign stances in view.

Clinton would rightly temper the trims in student loans and programs that help the working poor. He takes a swipe at so-called "corporate welfare," tax breaks and subsidies, but doesn't do enough to reduce farm programs.

The administration may rely too heavily on budget trims in the form of "compliance" measures designed to enforce rules and thus save money. While going with CBO numbers, as required, the White House hasn't totally let go of the rosier forecasts of its own Office of Management and Budget. The Clinton plan includes ways of distributing surpluses if those forecasts pan out.

Much will happen over the next seven years. Congress, and the economy, will change and shift. The balanced-budget commitment being hammered out now has to be strong enough to weather those changes. The final plan should allow both a leaner government and one still capable of responding to public needs.

The greatest public need, perhaps, is to see government work, not sputter and stall. Washington's negotiators should keep that in mind.

The greatest public need may be to see government work, not sputter and stall.

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