Republicans are gleeful they have come up with a consensus outline to balance the federal budget by 2002. But don't get caught up in the hyperbole: What's been achieved so far is the easy part. Making actual cuts in spending this fall will be agonizing work, even for dedicated deficit hawks.
This week, the House and Senate will endorse the deal negotiated by Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. It makes for great campaign rhetoric. Nearly $1 trillion in overall spending cuts including $190 billion from discretionary programs, $270 billion from Medicare and $180 billion from Medicaid. And -- drum roll -- a whopping $245 billion in tax cuts.
Don't count on that last item. Committed deficit-fighters in the Senate won a concession that any tax cut be contingent on spending cuts that meet the balanced-budget schedule. And a neutral party, the Congressional Budget Office, not politicians, will certify when this has been achieved.
The biggest hurdle will be visible in September as committees thrash out funding bills. Want to see politicians in the throes of pure agony? Farm-state lawmakers will begin cutting $13 billion out of agricultural subsidies. They also have to trim the food stamp program that farmers love. The popular student loan program must be reduced $11 billion.
But the worst wrangle is certain to involve Medicare. The powerful elderly lobby is already gearing up to blunt budget-cutting efforts that affect government health care benefits. Not many officials have been willing to stand up to this group in the past -- though no truly balanced budget effort can succeed without reining in entitlements.
Even if the Republican Congress achieves its goals, there's another battle that remains -- overcoming the objections, and possible veto, of a Democratic president. Republicans will have to compromise to avoid President Clinton's rejection of their budget and tax-cut bills. Otherwise, his vetoes will carry the day and government will grind to a halt for want of a budget. Mr. Clinton can then blame the Republicans for the gridlock, setting the stage for a Truman-style campaign next year with the GOP Congress as the villain.
Finding common ground would be far easier if Republicans and Mr. Clinton focused solely on the deficit. Poll after poll shows Americans overwhelmingly want a balanced budget and are lukewarm about tax cuts. They have their priorities straight; it's the politicians who are out of step.