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Jigsaw Puzzle

March 10, 1985

The Senate Budget Committee seemed to put on an impressive show this past week, whipping through vast portions of the 1986 budget with a flurry of roll-call votes. Combinations of Republicans and Democrats whacked $19 billion from military spending and refused to submit to President Reagan's demands for domestic cuts and program eliminations.

In the process, however, committee members lost ground in attacking the federal deficit and teetered perilously close to an old Reagan political trap by painting themselves as big spenders. The committee would have demonstrated more responsibility had it been more selective in looking at the President's proposed reductions.

Fortunately, there is plenty of time for the committee to undo, or rearrange, what has been done so far. This is only the early skirmishing in this year's budget war. And the committee is handicapped because it is trying to play the game with less than a full deck of cards.

The solution to the 1986 budget dilemma will rest on decisions affecting Social Security, new taxes, reductions in military spending and domestic program cuts. But so far the President is willing to put only the domestic issues onto the table.

A tax increase, which should be among the first things considered, is a remote last resort. And the Administration refuses to volunteer more than token cuts in its $313.7-billion military authorization budget.

The President says that he'll take the heat on budget cuts. But he clearly does not want to be stung with responsibility for a Social Security freeze or new taxes. With Democrats mostly watching from the sidelines, Senate Republican leaders are left with the unhappy chore of carving major deficit reductions out of a fraction of the budget, including a number of programs that are popular with their constituents. It's no wonder that they balked and then deadlocked when they got to Social Security.

The Budget Committee's role is to set broad spending targets, not specific appropriations. But its work is an important prelude to final, determining budget decisions. The task that Reagan has set for the committee is to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with some of the most important pieces missing.

There can be no rational solution to the budget problem until all the players, the White House and Democratic leaders included, join the game by putting all the pieces onto the table.

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