IN JUNE congressional Democrats adopted a budget resolution promising to reduce next year's budget deficit some $37 billion, about half of it through a tax increase. The president responded with the usual non sequiturs. He would never agree to a tax increase, nor to the defense restraint on which the resolution also rests, but no one was a greater champion of deficit reduction than he. To force him out of this enduring fantasyland, members of both parties then said that they would reconstitute the Gramm-Rudman process, which calls for automatic spending cuts split equally between domestic programs and defense, if the president and Congress fail to meet declining deficit targets.

The Senate has now passed its version of this terrifying threat. It turns out to be a gummy compromise that, far from impelling a frightened president to bargain to save his defense buildup, might not impel him -- or Congress -- to do very much at all. Frankenstein has been transformed into R2D2. Its defenders argue that the alternative is nothing, no enforcement mechanism binding on either branch. Something beats nothing every time. But the deficit targets in this legislation are already an implicit retreat from the budget resolution. They are also carefully set, as a number of Democrats noted last week, so that most of their bite would come only after Ronald Reagan leaves office. The party would continue to be his, the cleanup his successor's.

This is concessional legislation, and disingenuous besides. Sen. Phil Gramm, who should know, said in debate that it was written in part "to try to get a bill that the president will sign." It would likely protect the very presidential priorities that it purports to challenge. That's why the Republicans like it; it would let them have it both ways. That's also why House and some Senate Democrats want to tighten it up in conference, as well they should. The point of this exercise, insofar as it has one, is not to perpetuate the feel-good policy that has prevailed for the past six years. It is to make the president -- this president -- choos