After an ecstatic First Hundred Days, Republicans in Congress face the daunting task of making good on their vow to balance the budget by 2002. Intra-party bickering has already put the Senate Budget Committee way behind schedule.
The political stakes are huge. While the GOP is catering to public sentiment by advocating tax cuts that are totally unwarranted, it also is facing the necessity of making deep reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending that could devastate the party in next year's elections.
Democrats are watching the whole spectacle in gleeful anticipation of a Republican train wreck. With opinion polls showing President Clinton for the first time ahead of his 1996 rivals as a result of his handling of the Oklahoma City bombing, a revolt by senior citizens against GOP plans to slash Medicare could catapult him into a second term. The White House, putting politics over policy, is staying aloof from the health care debate.
Such cowardly cunning may not serve the peoples' interests. But in hard-ball Washington the partisan gamesmanship is well-understood. The ever-nimble Newt Gingrich, who defied elementary arithmetic by putting Social Security "off the table" while insisting on a balanced budget, has now told the Seniors Coalition that Medicare would also be divorced from his 2002 blueprint. At this rate, the new speaker would be wise to change his target date for balancing the budget to 3003.
Most experts on government financing are convinced that chronic federal deficits cannot be eliminated unless the runaway escalation of popular entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' benefits -- is stopped in its tracks. Both parties dare not touch the Social Security third rail before next year's elections. But in dealing with Medicare and Medicaid, all GOP rhetoric until now has been to rally the troops to do what is right and painful and inescapable.
Unless Mr. Gingrich is preparing a hasty retreat, the GOP deserves full credit for its resoluteness on this issue. Where it deserves a lot less -- indeed a loud raspberry -- is for insisting it can slash taxes four times deeper than Mr. Clinton's copycat proposal. Fortunately, two GOP deficit hawks, Sens. Pete Domenici and Bob Packwood, head the Senate Budget and Finance Committees, respectively. Mr. Domenici has rightly declared that so many government programs need to be eliminated or eviscerated this is no time to make budget balancing worse by reducing tax revenues.
His stand is on the mark. The nation and the Republican Party would be well-served if Senator Domenici can prevail against the tax cut frenzy and if he can hold his colleagues to their vows to cut government spending -- including the popular middle-class Medicare program. His version of the budget may be delayed. But when it appears later this month, citizens can be assured it will be a lot more austere and responsible than anything heard from the Gingrich and Clinton camps.