THE POSTURING House Republicans for whom Newt Gingrich speaks bewail their minority status; they claim to want to govern. But when the responsibility descends, they flee. It is no surprise that they are not supporting the new budget agreement. They will not support any budget. They regularly vote against the Democrats' budget, of course, but they will not bring up their president's budget, either, and certainly not offer one of their own. Claiming to be bold, they practice instead the calculated politics of no fingerprints. The cartoonists who draw them in short pants are right.

It would be one thing if the Democrats had won the distributional struggle on which the budget negotiations hinged. They didn't; if anything, they lost. The tax and benefit provisions at the core of the deficit reduction plan are on balance regressive. The wealthiest Americans, who gained the most from the tax cutting that helped produce the deficit in the Reagan years, are not now asked to give the most back, which was the Democrats' goal. Income tax rates would be unchanged; the upper-income gains are basically preserved. It is Democrats, not Republicans, who should complain as they vote aye.

The balking Republicans say they are against all tax increases. But they are of course against the deficit as well -- and no more willing or able than Ronald Reagan or George Bush has been to name the spending cuts that by themselves might bring the deficit out of the red zone. Instead they continue to parrot that what the country needs is more tax cuts to grow its way out of the deficit. You last heard that sort of happy talk about $2 trillion in debt ago. They say as well that the likely onset of a recession is the wrong time to raise taxes, and indeed it is. The only reason the country is having to do it now is that these same people argued successfully that the middle of a boom was the wrong time to do it too; there's never a right time for them.

The Gingrich Republicans don't want to give up the political lollipop of the tax issue to do what they were elected to do, which is govern. The president and Bob Michel have instead outlined a constructive course for the party. We don't love this agreement, but the deficit reduction it promises is mostly real and urgently needed; it has to pass. The House Republicans have to decide who leads them and what it is they stand for, fatuousness or substance.