REPUBLICAN leaders in Congress have apparently decided that their ''revolution'' can't wait until the November elections.
When talks broke down last week after 50 hours of negotiation in the White House, Republicans on the Hill were prepared to let voters decide which side was right on the budget.
Now they see an opportunity to gain the high ground against the White House. By the end of February House congressional leaders plan to attach tax cuts and entitlement reform to legislation designed to avoid a default on the national debt, according to a senior GOP strategist.
The new plan, fashioned with as many moderate Democrats as Republicans can win over, would leave Clinton with a choice: Accept Republican principles for a bipartisan balancing of the budget or allow the government to default on its loans for the first time in history. Without raising the debt limit, the government will run out of money to pay its creditors at the end of February.
In the meantime, GOP leaders are prepared to pass a series of one-month spending bills to keep the government open. Today, the GOP will present its first temporary measure. According to the GOP strategist, programs targeted for termination would receive 75 percent of 1995 funding. Targeted programs include those in the departments of Commerce,
While keeping the government open month by month, Republicans plan to underfund certain federal programs.
Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.
The GOP is to go lightly on the president in this first round, and present him something they believe he can easily sign, thus averting another federal shutdown at midnight Friday. They won't, for example, eliminate Clinton's beloved national service program in this first round. But month by month, the Republican Congress would present to Clinton legislation that phases in dramatic change in government.
It would be, in a wonderfully oxymoronic way, ''an incremental revolution,'' say Republicans. ''The whole issue we face here is to make sure we can get these bills signed and extract concessions from the White House,'' says the Republican strategist.
But Laura Tyson, Clinton's chief economic adviser, doubts the ability of the GOP to come up with this legislation on a monthly basis. ''They have to fight it out internally,'' she says. ''And if we veto it, they'll have trouble winning an override.''
Ms. Tyson sees ''vetoes down the line'' if the one-month extensions ''selectively zero out the president's major initiatives.''
The key element in the Republican plan - a revised balanced-budget package - will contain a poison pill for Clinton that Republicans believe will force him to sign it: the provision to raise the limit on the national debt.
The debt limit issue is growing in urgency daily, as the Treasury Department faces what it calls a March 1 ''drop-dead'' date. If the United States were to default on its debt, it could have a big impact on global markets and the US economy.
By attaching the debt-ceiling measure to the plan, the Republicans are trying to force President Clinton to accept greater reductions in social welfare programs and more tax cuts than he has been willing to accept until now.
So far, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has managed to keep the US solvent by borrowing from trust funds and other acts of bookkeeping legerdemain. But his bag of tricks will soon empty, and the Republican-controlled Congress hopes to use that to get its way on budget-cutting.
In political terms, Republican leaders have concluded they're in a no-lose situation. If the president signs their bills, there will be no more shutdowns of federal agencies and the programs unpopular with Republicans will be defunded bit by bit. If the president exercises his veto pen on the temporary stopgap bills, there will be more government shutdowns - and the GOP believes it can deflect the blame for that to Clinton.
Clinton in a corner?
Republicans also believe they may finally have backed the Clinton administration into an airtight corner on the big balanced-budget package - knowing well that Clinton does not want to be the first US president to preside over a default on the national debt.
If the Republicans had allowed the budget impasse to fester until November, they concluded, Clinton would in essence have won. He would have gotten to keep the government at or near 1995 spending levels, without any serious structural reform in programs they believe need it, such as welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid.
The Republicans have put together a new combination of tax cuts and savings from entitlements, which they say are the lowest they're willing to go. Their offer to date, all in seven-year numbers: a tax cut of $177 billion and savings from Medicare of $154 billion, from Medicaid $85 billion, and from welfare $60 billion. The Medicare number reflects a compromise from their previous position of $168 billion in savings.
In his State of the Union rebuttal Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole referred to the first part of the strategy, to send monthly stop-gap funding bills that would change government bit by bit.
''We will send the president bill after bill, returning power and programs to the states and to the people,'' said Senator Dole, the Republicans' likely nominee to challenge Clinton in November. ''We will challenge President Clinton again and again to walk the talk he talks so well.''
The GOP is looking for bipartisanship wherever it can find it. Toward that end, they may come up with a Balanced Budget II, replete with Democratic support, as early as next week.