ONE MONTH ago, in the wake of the defeat of the comprehensive test ban treaty, the Clinton administration seemed incompetent to get its foreign policy through a Congress controlled by the other party. But the last days of the budget negotiations have yielded a series of tactical victories or, perhaps more accurately, recoveries. The foreign aid bill, which initially left several of the president's priorities unfunded, has been substantially rescued: There is now money for Middle East peace, the controlling of loose nukes, and Third World debt relief. Sunday yielded another advance, or rescue: The administration and Congress appear to have reached a deal on paying America's large and mounting debts to the United Nations.

The U.N. deal involves a bending of the administration's family planning policy that understandably dismays some Democrats. In exchange for freeing up $926 million for the U.N., the administration has had to accept an antiabortion amendment offered by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). The amendment goes beyond long-standing restrictions on the use of American aid to promote or perform abortions; it bars family planning groups that do these things with their own money from receiving U.S. funds. For the past two years, the Clinton administration has rejected the Smith language, rightly arguing that it would deter many family planning groups from accepting American support, and so would cripple the $385 million population aid program.

This year, however, the administration has accepted the Smith language, while retaining the right for the president to waive it; if he does, 3 percent of the family planning budget will be diverted to immunization and other programs that help children in poor countries. Though family planning advocates dislike this prospect, the president was right to make the deal. The damage to population control is smaller than the damage to national interests that would have resulted from continued non-payment of U.N. dues, provided the president exercises his waiver.

Assuming the deal sticks, the administration will have to redirect its lobbying energy from Congress to foreign capitals. The $926 million is to be paid to the United Nations over three years, and each payment is conditional upon reforms at the United Nations that will be resisted by many other countries. Among these reforms, the United States wants to reduce its share of the U.N. budget from 25 percent to 22 percent, and then eventually down to 20 percent; it wants to cut its share of international peacekeeping expenditures from 31 percent to 25 percent; and it wants an automatic seat on the U.N.'s budget committee in the General Assembly.

Europe, Japan and others may well grumble at these demands, and especially at their unilateral imposition by the United States. But it would be better if they buried such resentment and joined America in pushing for a set of reforms that, as a practical political matter, have become essential to releasing the United Nations from budgetary pressure and allowing the world body to move on with its difficult and necessary work.