AFTER AN anxious month of rocky differences over how best to stem the tide of red ink in the District of Columbia's budget for the current fiscal year, Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon and D.C. Council Chairman John A. Wilson have agreed on an approach. An editorial on the subject that appeared in early Saturday editions was way behind the curve on this (asserting that Mrs. Dixon had the better of the argument) though news of the accord was reported in the Metro section. The news came after a two-hour meeting between Mayor Dixon and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Mrs. Dixon told Mr. Wilson after this session that she was convinced that the city will receive $100 million in emergency federal funds to help close an estimated $302 million deficit for the year that will end Sept. 30. Mr. Wilson said he had "been assured that they are extremely confident in their ability to have the federal payment increased. They have assured me they have a backup plan." Asa result, he said, he would drop a plan he had been pushing, which included a call for newtaxes.

That's the right order of things: Mayor Dixon's plan was the logical one to start with. It evolves from a series of valuable visits she has been making on Capitol Hill. Mr. Wilson had been questioning Mrs. Dixon's ability to persuade Congress to deliver on any support that may have been offered her. These doubts, he said, prompted his plan, which included $46 million in new local revenue and called for no pay raises, no overtime, no promotions, no paid lunch breaks and a reallocation of $35 million in current federal funding for the District. He also had called for no annual payment to Congress on a previous long-term deficit that the city had been paying off over the years.

Just as important as getting the city financial priorities straight is the achievement of a unified stand on the part of the local government before it formally approaches the federal government for money. Mrs. Norton's convening of the session with the mayor helped to pull this local act together -- which should help the city's pitch on the Hill. Though President Bush is proposing a $53 million increase in the regular annual federal payment to the District, the effects of cuts in federal assistance may well cancel out this increase. But reports have it that this is just a start on the process.

It had better be -- because if the dimensions of this city's deficit for the remainder of this fiscal year look bad, the numbers for the year beginning Oct. 1 -- which is when the next federal payment will click in -- are frightening. Add to that a staggering liability in the years ahead for unfunded pension liabilities in the local system so recklessly established and embellished by previous congresses, local leaders and unions -- and nothing short of drastic actions are in order.

That is why Mayor Dixon has called for $130 million in program and personnel cuts. The proposals detailed by her yesterday are sure to generate sharp and often understandable protests from each affected interest. But Mayor Dixon and Chairman Wilson both have tough stands on this front and responsible council members should be prepared to stand tough as well. The spending cuts have to come first, as the predicate for a higher federal consideration.