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Bush's First Budget

PRESIDENTIAL budgets - especially a new president's - are always as much symbol as substance, and in this George Bush's is no exception. The social safety net would get a bit of necessary patching up: $400 million more for the homeless, a quarter of a billion more for Head Start, a billion and a half more for medicaid (health care for the poor), a billion more for child nutrition. Not as much as Democrats in Congress want, but it does add up to real money.

The Pentagon would get less than under the last Reagan budget - $2.5 billion less next year and $45 billion less over four years. That's movement in the right direction as well.

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Domestic cuts range across areas that probably should be nipped in an age of ``more will than wallet'' - agricultural subsidies, federal pensions, medicare.

The Bush lips are sealed on new taxes and social security, and the economic scenario on which budget deficit reduction is based remains rosy, `a la Reagan.

This latter point could be the most crucial in determining whether the federal budget - at long last - comes into balance in 1993.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says Reagan's 1990 deficit projection was too low by $27 billion. Ten billion of that is due to overly-optimistic assumptions about economic growth, inflation, and interest rates, according to the CBO (and most private forecasters). The rest comes from the likely higher cost of such things as bailing out the savings and loan industry.

If the CBO is right, 1993 could see an $80 billion deficit instead of the black-ink budget called for under Gramm-Rudman. That would be very bad news indeed. It's increasingly fashionable in some quarters to pooh-pooh the budget deficit. But with a national debt costing $170 billion-plus a year in interest payments, there can be little doubt that Uncle Sam is living beyond his means.

Does that mean new taxes are inevitable, as some urge? We're not willing to capitulate on that point yet. And Mr. Bush is right to stick to his pledge too - at least until the budget wrist-wrestling with Congress is much farther along.

So where to get the cuts to meet Gramm-Rudman and how to do it?

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Democratic leaders grumble that Bush is taking the credit for being kinder and gentler - not axing 82 domestic programs that Reagan had cut, for instance - while leaving it to them to make the hard choices. There's some truth to that. But it also lets them know up front that deficit cutting has to be a joint effort. No pain, no gain.

Bush & Co. will have to give too, of course. There are certainly more savings to be found in defense. And more does need to be spent on things like fighting the scourge of drugs.

Presidential budgets are symbolic, but they're also opening gambits. Now the game begins in earnest.

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