When it comes to perestroika, the biggest question facing the United States is, how much is it going to cost us?

A friendly Russian bear does not come cheap, and the United States is now burning the midnight oil to add up the bill.

Deep underneath the Treasury is a situation room where all the economic facets of the Soviet economy are played out. It is here that the president will push the button if he cannot find any good excuse to extend credit to Mikhail Gorbachev.

The other day he came close. A grizzled economist named Mozart, buried under a mountain of computer printouts, announced, "We estimate that now that Gorby has won his battle in the Communist Party Congress, we will have to give him $300 billion just to replace the popcorn machines in his movie theaters."

President Bush bit his lip: "I'll never get Congress to approve that."

Elkins, the president's chief Soviet watcher, said, "Gorbachev has indicated that if we don't lend him $200 billion to improve the caliber of the Red Army soccer team, he will withdraw all his missile-reduction proposals and will go ahead with his plans to produce acid rain over Lithuania. Frankly, I think he's bluffing, but who am I to say?"

"You're my Soviet expert," the president said tersely. "When it comes to wanting money from us, I think Gorbachev is dead serious. While he was here, he kept borrowing quarters from me to go to the Washington Hilton men's room. That doesn't sound like someone who is kidding around."

Benny Boner from the CIA Savings and Loan Bank suggested, "Why don't we send Gorbachev 400 S&Ls and let him make his own loans? Then instead of the Soviet deficit being our problem, it will become his."

The president said, "If we give Gorbachev our S&Ls, and he finds out what condition they are in, he would have no choice but to declare war. We must advance him hard dollars or lose him as a friend."

"But how, Mr. President?"

"Read my lips."

Everyone watched the president intently.

Elkins spoke up, "You're saying that you want to tax the American people so that the Soviets can borrow money! During your campaign you promised that you would never raise taxes to pay for balalaika music at Lenin's tomb."

"I know what I promised," the president snapped. "Now read my lips again."

Benny laughed, "You said that you didn't say it, and if you did, you didn't mean it. That's a good one, Mr. President. Before we take any money from our day-care centers, let's examine some facts. The hard-liners are making headway in the Soviet Union and are trying to push Gorbachev to the wall. If they dump him, there will be no need to advance any money to the Soviets."

The president added, "If Gorbachev falls and the hard-liners take over, that could mean another arms race."

Mozart agreed, "Exactly. I'm not saying that it's the best of all solutions, but at least our money won't have to go abroad."

Benny said, "I've always maintained that it's better to fight the Russkies on the beaches of Easthampton than to foreclose on their condominiums on the Black Sea."

Elkins told the group, "I wouldn't trust a Soviet borrower any further than I could throw an Albanian oilman. Commies have always been lousy loan risks. I know one Red who turned out to be an FBI informer. He lost his car because he couldn't make his interest payments. Does that sound like someone we should be lending money to?"

The president repeated, "Read my lips."

Everyone stared at him.

Benny, the CIA man, said, "You mean you want us to make the loan if they'll take Noriega? Good thinking, Mr. President. We'll kill two stones with one bird."