Can Boston, battered like many American cities by federal and state budget cuts, survive its latest Christmas present? That's the question beleaguered city officials are asking, following passage by the state Legislature this past weekend of a bill designed to hoist the city from its fiscal abyss.
The subject of the debate surrounding the bill, ostensibly, was finance: how to restructure Boston's fiscal affairs.
Underneath, however, the issue was political. Under discussion was the personality of Mayor Kevin H. White - one of the longest-serving and most controversial mayors in America - and his severely strained relationship with the state Legislature.
The occasion should have been one for jubilation. The so-called ''Tregor bill ,'' passed after 11 months of often-Byzantine political maneuvering, allows Boston to borrow up to $75 million and to levy several new taxes.
But it departs in crucial ways from the home-rule bill originally submitted by Mayor Kevin H. White and the City Council. And the city, although hanging from a fiscal thread and continuing to lay off firemen, policemen, and teachers, has threatened to challenge the bill's legality in court.
''Boston needs a sound fiscal plan now,'' said a statement issued by the mayor's office following Senate passage of the modified bill, ''but in our opinion the version approved today is not the one.''
An even more ominous assessment came from a spokesman for the firm underwriting the city's municipal bonds. ''The bill is a nullity,'' said Francis X. Meaney, counsel to the Merrill Lynch White Weld Markets Group, adding that ''no bonds can be issued.''
The bond sale is needed, say city officials, to offset a battery of financial pressures, including:
* Proposition 2 1/2, the statewide measure limiting property-tax collections to 2 1/2 percent of assessed value.
* The ''Tregor'' case, putting the city under court order to give tax rebates to previously overassessed property owners.
* School overspending, which since 1972 has produced deficits totaling more than $73 million.