CONGRESS GOT OFF to a fast start this year, but now it is stalled. Too many bills are interrelated, too many await agreement on the budget. A debt ceiling bill must be passed by the end of July or the Treasury -- how many times have you heard it? -- will run out of borrowing authority; that is the current forcing device. The Republicans have said they'll only raise the debt ceiling if the Democrats will agree to restructure the budget process. The Democrats say there's no way to consider the budget process without also considering the content.

That means discussing or somehow precipitating a tax increase (though the Democrats continue to be divided on what kind of increase). But the Republicans won't talk about a tax increase unless they can be assured a certain share will be reserved for defense; the Democrats are equally adamant that a fair share be reserved for domestic programs; and no one seems able this year to debate defense without also debating arms control. Think of it: Gramm-Rudman II and SALT II in a single bill. The whole Congress would come down to just one vote: The future, are you for it or against it, yes or no? You have 15 minutes to make up your mind.

The budget question of how much to spend has been central all year. That was true in the early weeks of the session when Congress passed the clean-water and highway bills over the president's vetoes; he said they cost too much. The debate over welfare reform -- Republicans are fending off a Democratic bill in the Ways and Means Committee -- has come down in part to this same theme of cost. The leading issue in catastrophic health insurance has become not what coverage to provide, but how to finance it. Questions of cost have led leading Democrats to propose that health insurance be afforded the bulk of the currently uninsured, not by the government, but by private employers. They would require that all workers be provided with a minimum amount of insurance. The cost issue is even present in the debate over congressional campaign finance. The Senate Democrats want to go to a system of public financing; Republicans say the voters will never stand for it.

The president dealt in his usual helpful fashion with this basic issue the other day. He was quoted as telling congressional Republicans that he won't "accept any attempt to trap me into either raising taxes or gutting defense." Then he ridiculed the Democrats, struggling with what kind of tax to propose, for trying to set up a "tax-of-the-month club" and said in a speech, "I will veto any legislation that raises the American people's taxes." That's what he says. But what will he finally do in mid-July or whenever the critical moment comes? The balance of his administration depends on tha