AMERICANS overwhelmingly want Congress and the president to find a way to balance the budget, rather than settle for a piecemeal deficit-reduction effort. With strong public support for such an effort, it would be tragic for us to give up now. We don't have to - and we shouldn't. Let's get on with the job, but this time let's do it right.
The budget stalemate between President Clinton and GOP congressional leaders may be fortuitous, because it gives us a chance to start over with a new and better approach. It presents us with the opportunity to discard both the Republicans' and the president's seriously flawed plans and adopt, instead, the ''coalition budget.''
The coalition budget would eliminate deficits over seven years without inflicting deep cuts or ideologically driven changes in vital programs. Seventy-two House members voted for the proposal last October as an alternative to the GOP plan, and I'm convinced more Republicans and Democrats would have voted for it had it not meant defying the political agendas of their party leaders.
The coalition plan is not perfect, but it delivers what polls show the vast majority of Americans want: a balanced budget that protects programs for the elderly, disabled, children, and low-income Americans. It also retains adequate (though not generous) funding for education and job training, environmental protection, national parks, transportation, crime control, health research, and other programs and services.
It does all this, quite simply, by omitting a tax cut entirely, and by spreading the burden of spending cuts more broadly and equitably than either the Republican budget or the president's proposal.
Mr. Clinton and GOP leaders have been arguing over the size and scope of a tax cut, but we should not be cutting taxes at all until deficits are eliminated. If balancing the budget is our paramount objective, it's foolish to make that goal harder to reach by reducing federal revenues. If we reduce taxes, we have to ''pay'' for them by making deeper spending cuts in programs most people want to protect.
Although the tax cuts proposed by the Republicans and the president are theoretically balanced with spending cuts through 2002, budget analysts say the revenue losses from the tax cuts would soar after the seven-year time frame. The fact is, the tax cuts are a recipe for never-ending deficits.
If we spread spending reductions broadly, we can spare individual programs from devastating cuts. Neither the president's nor the Republicans' plan take advantage of the full range of possibilities for cutting spending. Both exclude Social Security and defense - areas that together comprise nearly half of all the spending Congress has the power to cut.
In fact, under the GOP budget, defense spending would grow. At a time when there is consensus for eliminating deficits, and when the threat to our national security has diminished, this budget would provide $33 billion more over seven years than Pentagon officials believe is necessary for a strong defense.
The coalition plan, by contrast, spreads the burden of deficit-reduction across virtually the entire budget. It holds defense spending to Pentagon-proposed levels; it also cuts tax subsidies for businesses (''corporate welfare'') to a greater extent than the Republican budget.
The coalition budget also includes a slight change in cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs, whose increases are tied to the Consumer Price Index. Many economists say the CPI overstates inflation and is overdue for a correction. The change would have a modest effect on the incomes of beneficiaries, yet would help achieve a permanent end to federal deficits.
The coalition plan is disciplined and realistic. The Clinton budget, as well as the GOP plan, would increase deficits for a year before returning to the downward path of deficit spending that began three years ago. By contrast, the coalition budget would reduce deficits in each successive year for the next seven years.
Both the Republicans' and the president's plans would achieve less than 40 percent of the promised deficit reduction in the first five years of the seven-year balanced-budget time frame. By postponing the bulk of the spending cuts until the last two years, both almost guarantee that the spending cuts they are counting on will never materialize. And to show balance in 2002, the president's plan makes the highly questionable assumption that Congress will allow popular tax cuts to expire in 2000, an election year.
The coalition budget provides for nearly twice as much deficit reduction in the first five years as either of the other plans and would achieve more than half of the total promised reduction during those years. By spreading the budget cuts more evenly, and by shunning unrealistic assumptions, the coalition plan holds better prospects for actually producing a balanced budget in seven years - and for keeping it balanced in the years that follow.
President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders insist that they continue to share the goal of achieving a balanced budget. So do the vast majority of men and women serving in Congress. If that's so, it's time for all of us to drop the plans advanced by the president and GOP leaders and embrace the one that puts the best interests of our nation ahead of party politics.