CONGRESSIONAL conferees have agreed on what amounts to a new budget for next fiscal year. The $23 billion in deficit reduction it would require is a good deal less than promised in the budget resolution adopted in June, but more than now seems likely to be achieved in any other way. The House and Senate should accept it not because it is a particularly ennobling proposal but because it is the least bad alternative in sight.

The White House, of course, continues to resist. But at some point the Republicans in Congress have to decide which ship they want to go down with. The Congressional Budget Office and other tea-leaf readers say that, left to itself, the deficit will creep up next fiscal year because of a fluttery economy. That's the ultimate bad dream: a deficit so large that it saps the economy, whose weakness in turn increases the deficit. The government indeed is part of the problem here; it is left with no reserves to try to turn the economy around.

The new budget is stuck in a bill to raise the debt ceiling and allow the Treasury to borrow to cover deficits past. The retreat from the budget resolution is implicit and done in the guise of strengthening the budget process by wheeling Gramm-Rudman back out of the garage. There would be automatic spending cuts, half in selected domestic programs (not Social Security, not the main programs for the poor) and half in defense, if the president and Congress failed to reach declining (but now much more accessible) deficit targets.

The target for the current fiscal year was eased at the insistence of Republicans. Their leader in this was Sen. Phil Gramm, who has shrunk from the implications of the process that bears his name ever since the day he proposed it. The White House has had the same problem. How could a president who wants a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution not be for a process that promises a balanced budget even faster? But not, of course, at the expense of the president's other priorities. Thus a spokesman said the White House would oppose any legislation "that would force the president to choose between a tax increase and a huge across-the-board" spending "cut that would hurt defense."

This administration came to office saying the country could afford a large tax cut and defense build-up at the same time; domestic spending cuts and the growth the tax cut would touch off would provide the necessary funds. It hasn't worked. Not even the president is able to conjure up enough domestic spending cuts; not even his own economists predict the growth. The new budget is a modest effort to make the president help clean up after his own party.