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The Delicate Art Of Compromise

Let's try to get down to basics on this balance-the-budget deal. First, who won? President Clinton gets to claim that he was the first president in a long time to balance the budget. But it might not happen.

Before 2002, when this balancing is supposed to take place, the economy might take a slide - and out the window would go that $400-billion-plus revenue increase the deal is relying on. If a balanced budget does come about, Mr. Clinton is hoping historians will note with approval.

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But I think that Newt Gingrich was the big winner. His Contract with America included cutting taxes and balancing the budget. Indeed, those were the prime objectives of the Republican push for change that began with the GOP takeover of the House in 1994.

The Speaker was badly beaten when he tried in 1995 to force down the president's throat a balanced budget that would have entailed sizable tax reductions. Even then he had a triumph that hardly anyone noticed: He actually got Clinton to join in the effort to balance the budget. That was quite a concession from a Democrat.

Indeed, Democratic liberals take a dim view of the concept that balancing the budget is a high priority. They believe this objective is bound to reduce or end some needed domestic programs.

And now Mr. Gingrich and his Republicans seem to have Clinton with them on this budget-balancing act. It still will take some doing. The congressional committees, headed by Republicans, must now work out the details of the legislation. Gingrich says there will be GOP "angels" in the details - that in shaping the package, the deal will be sweetened for Republicans. But Republicans must beware of pushing their legislation-writing power too far. It's clear that too much GOP-flavored "sweetening" might sour the deal. Clinton might take a second look at the arrangement and decide to bow out.

Second, who lost? The liberal Democrats lost. If you have any doubt about this, just listen to the call-in shows. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota is a leader of this dissent, asserting that important compassion-related programs have been sacrificed in the dealmaking process. He particularly would have liked to have seen money for rebuilding schools and financing early childhood programs.

But funny thing: While the wailing from liberals is loud, they somehow have found a way of not blaming the president. And Democratic leaders in Congress were, for the most part, left out of the deal. Indeed, they are swallowing their anger with Clinton.

Hard-core conservatives also are upset. They think that the agreement provides too much money for Clinton's domestic programs. And, more than anything else, they decry legislation that will enlarge, not shrink, the size of the federal government.

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THIRD, if this deal stirred up so much opposition, how was it put together? The answer here is an old one that has been expressed something like this over many years: Politics is the art of the possible. The deal became possible when a Democratic president and a Republican congressional leadership were able to give a little here and take a little there to a place where they each felt they had enough to come to an agreement.

It was a compromise.

And in a compromise the result often doesn't meet the demands of those who feel they have been let down in the wheeling and dealing.

We are talking about the legislative process in our democracy. It moves forward by compromise. The sight isn't always pretty. But it is doing what is possible.

And that's what Clinton and Gingrich and majority leader Trent Lott pulled off in this budget deal - a deal that Gene Sperling, chairman of the National Economic Council, told the Monitor breakfast group would probably hold together and become legislation.

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