Budget debate will tell us who in D.C. was listening


WASHINGTON -- The clearest message sent by the voters six months ago was that they were tired of politics as usual in Washington.

The nature of the great debate ahead over the budget deficit will tell us whether anyone in Congress or the White House was listening.

The center of that debate should be the proposal advanced by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

It makes what he correctly calls "hard choices" without including the crowd-pleasing -- and deficit-raising -- tax reductions in the House Republican measure.

(Domenici would allow a more modest tax cut only if and after the Congressional Budget Office certified that his balanced budget plan would accomplish its purpose.)

The entirely predictable response from Democrats was that Republicans are, in the language of the congressional leadership, bent on "cutting medical care for seniors in order to give additional tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations."

The equally predictable Republican counter was that the Democrats, as House Majority Leader Dick Armey put it, "have nothing to offer but fear itself."

Once you get past the rhetoric, it is plain that the Domenici plan does perform at least the minimal service of defining the dimensions of the problem in trying to reach a balanced budget in seven years.

It would mean abolishing scores of long-standing federal programs, each with its own reason for being, and shutting down the Commerce Department and perhaps several dozen other agencies with long histories.

What is most pointed, however, is the recognition that most of the savings required will have to come from entitlement programs and that, because Social Security is probably still sacrosanct, that means the Medicare program for the elderly and the Medicaid program for the indigent.

Everyone familiar with the budget realities has known this for years, but now there is a specific proposal on the table for confronting this most politically toxic of all realities.

And this means, in turn, that the Republicans have now put the ball into the court of President Clinton and the Democrats in Congress.

They can complain with considerable justification that the Republican plans are too draconian.

The president can complain in particular that the kind of managed-care approach needed to reduce Medicare costs under the Republican plan was at the heart of the health care reform plan these same Republicans rejected so derisively just a year ago.

They can argue that there is no particular magic in seven years as the time frame for the deficit.

But the White House and congressional Democrats are going to have to accept some important aspects of the Republican proposals, produce specific alternatives -- or give the lie to the notion that they are serious about eliminating the federal deficit.

The politics of the situation could not be more complex and frightening for both Republicans and Democrats.

Every program that might be cut has some constituency somewhere, and every one of any size has lobbyists and public relations apparatchiks capable of making a lot of noise about it.

Medicare is particularly explosive.

It is a program that has worked out well in terms of providing care for older Americans, even if the costs have been rising to levels that cannot be tolerated indefinitely.

It is a program important not only to the seniors already covered but also to the generation behind them of middle-aged Americans who would otherwise have to pay for their parents' medical care.

And Medicare, like Social Security, has been a social insurance program and seen as such by retired Americans who have paid for it in their working years.

Reducing benefits or raising deductibles or driving away physicians with reductions in allowable fees -- all of those alternatives will be seen by the retired as a breach of a contract with a lot more history than the "Contract with America."

So the temptation will be great for the president and his fellow Democrats to play demagogic games and tell their constituents that a balanced budget can be achieved without anyone suffering any pain.

But that is just the kind of politics as usual the voters rejected so emphatically six months ago.

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