REPUBLICANS in Congress have begun to put forward alternatives to President Clinton's anti-deficit package of tax increases, budget cuts, and the "stimulus package" he says the economy needs.
Unfortunately, an initial proposal from the Senate side of the Capitol, is unresponsive to one of the themes that carried through the 1992 campaign: that of fairness. This means fairness not just in who sacrifices in deficit reduction, but in who should be asked to sacrifice the most - given who gained and lost the most during the past 12 years.
The approach, offered by Sens. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, would ask Congress to reject an estimated $187 billion in new federal spending called for in Clinton's overall package. That, they argue, would eliminate the need to raise $360 billion in taxes that the president's plan calls for over the next five years.
Some of that increased spending, however, aims to repair, however modestly, the tattering of the social "safety net" that occurred during the last 12 years. The Republican cuts would hit activities such as Head Start; the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program; and food stamps; and hold back expansion of the earned income tax credit to aid the working poor. Their approach also cancels some of the potentially worthwhile programs Clinton identifies as "investments."
As we have noted before, the president should focus more attention on spending cuts. The importance of that side of the ledger was evident in the White House's shift in moving the plan through Congress. Rather than putting a $31 billion stimulus package on a fast track for consideration - and thus risking the support of freshman Democrats who were elected on deficit reduction - Clinton will offer both stimulus and spending cuts at the same time.
The Republicans face a difficult political task. The administration has challenged its opponents to come up with a credible alternative. But if Republicans keep a low profile in the interim or merely are seen as contrarians, they concede the initiative to the president.
House Republicans are in the process of drafting an alternative plan, which they hope to have ready next month. That at least would answer Clinton's challenge and perhaps serve as a basis for putting a compromise package together that would make real gains against the deficit, meet the fairness test, and give both parties something to take back to voters in '94.
Those goals won't be served, however, if even in a holding action the GOP leadership resorts to old formulas.