PROGRESS on the budget is currently stalled between White House insistence that the Senate's Republican leadership must not curb either defense or Social Security spending and Senate Democrats' insistence that Republicans take full responsibility for curbing both items. Although the White House and Senate GOP leaders have again agreed to negotiate, any hope of further progress is more likely to come from a compromise between Senate Republicans and Democrats than from a rapprochement between the president and his own party's leaders.
More than a week ago the Senate Budget Committee managed to produce a budget blueprint that, while far from a final solution to the budget dilemma, was at least a considerably more realistic and fairer document than the president's budget plan. Moreover, the committee's decisions on many touchy program cuts -- including revenue sharing, Medicare, farm, education and job programs as well as slower growth in military spending -- came from good-faith bipartisan bargaining.
But compromise broke down over two issues: insistence by Sen. Lawton Chiles and other Democrats that their support for a freeze on Social Security benefits be contingent upon Republican support for a curb on fast-growing tax subsidies; and complaints from Democratic members that Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, by using dubious administration accounting techniques and economic assumptions, was overstating savings and understating deficits produced by the plan. As a result, the plan was approved by the committee without the vote of a single Democrat.
Without significant support from Democratic senators, it is unlikely that a budget plan could clear the Senate and still more unlikely that compromise could be reached in the House. That might not trouble the White House, which has never seemed truly worried by the deficit so long as it could count on the compliant defense subcom- mittees to keep the Pentagon supplied with more money than it could usefully spend. But this is not a good outcome for the country's economic security.
It's not hard to understand why Senate Republicans feel they've already been brave enough in standing up to the president on defense and that it's time for courage by the Democrats on So- cial Security. It's even easier to understand Democrats' reluctance to get even a step in front of plans to curb Social Security or raise taxes after they took such a beating last November from a president who swore he would never do either.
But without further compromise from both parties, another year is likely to pass in which mounting interest costs on the fast-growing federal debt will make future efforts to control deficits even more difficult. Neither party may see any short- term advantage in dealing with the problem. But politicians who are nursing hurt feelings and posturing for partisan advantage don't have much staying power with the public. The excuses won't be remembered if the economy begins to show signs of wear from shouldering massive deficits. In the long run, bad policies rarely make good politics.