PRESIDENT CLINTON'S first veto of a D.C. appropriations bill was not unexpected, given the recommendations he received from several local groups and his own Office of Management and Budget to reject the measure on home-rule grounds. In vetoing the bill in its existing form, however, the president now assumes the burden of working with the Republican-led Congress to fashion a compromise that retains all the fine features of the budget originally sent to Capitol Hill by the city, as well as important funding added during congressional budget markups.

The city's new mayor and a reform-minded council produced a balanced budget containing a healthy surplus and the largest tax cut in the city's history. Their efforts to develop a consensus spending plan were aided by Congress's own local agent, the D.C. financial control board. House and Senate appropriators should have leaped to shepherd this year's D.C. budget through Congress. Instead, congressional micromanagers elected once again to step upon the District's home-rule prerogatives by adding a number of unacceptable riders. In doing so, Congress converted a good D.C. budget into presidential veto-bait.

In nixing the bill, President Clinton declared that "Congress has interfered in local decisions in this bill in a way that it would not have done to any other local jurisdiction in the country." He's absolutely right.

One disingenuous House GOP critic is accusing the White House of promoting "a pro-drug agenda" because the vetoed measure contains congressional bans on medical-marijuana legalization and a needle-exchange program. The charge is both wrong and unfair. The veto defends a broad principle, not drugs. It is, as the president said, "to let the people of the District . . . make local decisions about local matters, as they should under home rule."

Some Republicans also resorted to the scare tactic of threatening to cut a new tuition-assistance program for D.C. high school graduates and to eliminate crime-fighting and children's health funding if the bill is vetoed. The threat makes little sense. Congressional Republicans and Democrats already have agreed to funding levels in the bill. Any attempt to impose spending cuts at this stage would be an act of pure vindictiveness. The only items warranting outright elimination are the intrusive riders. The city deserves a clean bill. The president and Congress should make that happen.