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There They Go Again

CONGRESSIONAL Democrats are at it again.

As President Clinton stumped in Ohio and Illinois this week for his economic package of tax increases and spending cuts, his party's leaders on Capitol Hill have been crafting a strategy to move $272 billion in tax increases through the House and Senate as part of Mr. Clinton's overall anti-deficit effort.

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The goal, party leaders say, is a solid front against any GOP attempts to block or alter the proposal through amendments or filibuster.

The president and Democrats in Congress need an economic-policy success. Clinton, especially, has been beset by a persistently sluggish economic recovery, conflicting opinions on Bosnia, continuing political unrest over his proposal to allow gays to serve in the military, and a defeat at the hands of GOP Sen. Robert Dole & Co. over a $16.3 billion stimulus package.

The Democrats' answer, however, seems to be to bring out a steamroller rather than a negotiator - not a plan in the best long-term interests either of Clinton or his programs. It is a plan geared less to demonstrating an ability to govern, which the Democrats hope to achieve, than to solidifying Republican opposition to other initiatives that Clinton and Americans deem important, such as health-care reform.

The strategy in the House seems to be one of ensuring party discipline to keep the Democratic majority solidly behind the president's tax package.

In the Senate, Democrats reportedly hope to capitalize on Senate rules preventing filibusters during the budget reconciliation process, during which individual spending and tax bills are drafted to adopt the goals outlined in the budget resolution that passed in March. The arithmetic: Senate Democrats need only 50 votes to pass spending and tax bills, not 60 to end a filibuster.

Leading Republicans share responsibility here: The most charitable characterization of their rhetoric on the budget issue would be "strident." Just as Democrats would be wrong to repeat the railroading that cost them their stimulus package, so Republicans would be wrong to draw too heavily on that victory as a model for future dealings with Democrats. Ironically, the balance may hang once again with moderate Republicans, especially if even one Democratic deficit hawk on the Senate Finance Committee decid es to jump Clinton's ship. If that happens, Democrats may find themselves in the same situation as in March: wooing Republicans who may be so put off at Democratic tactics that they spurn any overtures.

That would be unfortunate politically and economically. Clinton's deficit-cutting package is needed. But so is a working relationship with Republicans. The frustration of being the party out of the White House for more than than two decades should not be allowed to discount the value of a bipartisan approach to two of the biggest domestic issues facing the country.

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