Election Day May Not Come Soon Enough

PRESIDENT Clinton and the Republican leadership have all but given up on being able to reach an early budget-balancing agreement. The task now is to agree on rules of engagement for the next 10 months until the election.

It isn't that they haven't tried to bridge the chasm between them. The Republicans have moved a little toward the administration position, scaling back on proposed tax cuts and on some program reductions. The president has moved a longer way toward the Republican position. He has accepted twice as much in program cuts as he proposed last June. He has himself proposed a five-year cap on welfare cash payments.

He cannot go further, he says, without endangering the structures of health, education, social, and environmental programs that he is determined to protect. So, he proposed a kind of interim agreement on enough cuts to start down the path to a balanced budget, leaving the broader ideological and philosophical issues about the role of government for the voters to adjudicate.

Nuts to that, say the Republicans, in effect. That would only perpetuate the programs whose dismantling the GOP revolution is all about. However, the Republicans are having second thoughts about the two weapons they have so far deployed to maintain pressure. The government shutdown backfired on them, causing a lot of Americans suddenly to realize what government does for them. The refusal to raise the debt ceiling also appears to look unattractive, raising the specter of default and unnerving the markets.

The House Republicans' new weapon of choice is the ''targeted appropriation,'' also known as the ''salami tactic.'' It would slice off for funding the programs Republicans like and simply leave unfunded the programs they don't. As examples of programs to be spurned, House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich has cited AmeriCorps, the national service program; Goals 2000, the education program; and the Department of Commerce.

This display of raw legislative power would be like a line-item veto in reverse, leaving the president with nothing to veto. The government would not be shut down, but many programs, agencies, and whole departments would be left gasping for breath, unable to function very long. Some of the more visible activities, like Meals on Wheels and the passport office, would be fully funded.

It's hard to imagine what the president's counter-strategy would be. But clearly there would be a collision between branches of government long before the voters get a chance to speak out at the ballot box.

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