THE DEFICIT cuts to which the president and Congress agreed last year were paltry. But even these were achieved only after great labor and a painful decision finally to rid the bill of some of the worst of the favors the players wanted to insert for their friends. The greatest of the favors and first to go was the president's proposal to cut the capital gains tax.

Now Senate minority leader Bob Dole, with a history of being one of the better soldiers in the budget process, has proposed a possible first step toward a similar stripping of the legislation. He would put the capital gains tax and most of the other balm that members have proposed in a separate bill. The procedures under which that might be considered -- both how separate and how amendable it might be -- remain unclear. But it would be a healthy step -- with one exception. The burden of deficit reduction should be broadly borne but should not fall on the poor and near-poor. The main bill must continue to contain provisions to shield them.

The capital gains issue ought to be set aside. Not only is it, deservedly, a major political obstacle to agreement, a cut in the gains tax would be wrong on the merits, a costly and regressive step that would do clear harm and little demonstrable good. Mr. Dole would also split off assorted other "initiatives" -- a euphemism for steps that would add to rather than narrow the deficit -- including an array of increased aid to the poor that the Democrats were pushing under the banner of child care.

We would trade most of these for deficit reduction if we had to. But the most important of them were tax changes that a) had little to do with child care in the first place and b) had ceased in the context of the budget talks to constitute increases in aid to the poor. They were being offered instead as defensive devices, to offset the regressive effects that excise tax increases and other deficit-reducing steps would otherwise have on low-income people. One such proposal would increase the standard deduction and thereby the tax threshold for people (mostly in the lower income brackets) who don't itemize. The other would increase the earned-income tax credit for the working poor with children.

Some such protections should be preserved. It's urgent that the budget deficit be reduced: future economic and governmental health both depend on it. But a serious social deficit has been allowed to accumulate as well in the atmosphere of recent years. The country ought to try to reduce both deficits at once; it can afford to. But at the very least, the fiscal problem ought not be solved at the expense of the poor. Mr. Dole's otherwise useful proposal should be carefully amended to make sure of that.