Now for a Serious Chat on the Budget : After a hurricane of rhetoric, the stage is set

After months of often ridiculous schoolyard posturing and overblown rhetoric, after a partial shutdown of the government that kept 800,000 "nonessential" federal workers home for six days, the way has been cleared for serious negotiations on achieving a balanced budget. President Clinton, who vetoed the Republican budget plan Wednesday, is set to present his own ideas today, significantly after accepting the GOP timetable for a zero-deficit budget by the year 2002. And so for the first time in this complex and vital process, coherent competing ideas are expected to be on the table and subject to real bargaining. It's little less than shameful that it has taken so long to reach this stage.

PICK A NUMBER: Now comes the arcane numbers game, wherein each side will claim that the economic assumptions it is working from have a sanctity just this side of holy writ. The White House plan uses economic projections--including estimates of future interest rates and federal revenues--provided by its own Office of Management and Budget. The Republicans insist on Congressional Budget Office figures, which are more conservative than the OMB's and so would point to deeper cuts in federal spending to reach a balanced budget. But the next projection of the Congressional Budget Office, now scheduled for Tuesday at the earliest, is expected to assume lower deficits in coming years. If so, spending cuts smaller than what the Republicans posit might serve.

A major focus of any cuts is Medicare, among the fastest growing of the entitlement programs. The GOP wants to slash Medicare spending by $270 billion over seven years. Clinton wants a $124-billion cut. Governing the size of the reduction is the issue of how it would be apportioned: by how much would hospital and doctors' payments be reduced, by how much would monthly premiums for program beneficiaries be increased? This is where the political bloodshed could be heaviest.

MILES TO GO: The president and the Republicans are also far apart on Medicaid and welfare cuts, on how much to spend on federal support for education and environmental protection, on the size and timing of any tax cuts. The distance between the two sides all but guarantees that the goal of reaching an agreement by Dec. 15 will be unmet. Some of the gloomier observers are already mumbling that the debate over where to cut spending will drag on well into next year's presidential campaign.

Broad areas of agreement nonetheless do exist: on the manifold benefits of achieving balanced budgets, which could have a huge positive impact on interest rates, growth and employment; on the need to adjust the consumer price index downward so that automatic increases in Social Security and federal pensions can be reduced; and on the seven-year process for reaching zero deficit. This is a start. Now, please, can we have an end to political clowning and the opening of a serious effort to reach the compromises that everyone knows are inevitable?

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