HOUSE REPUBLICANS propose to make it harder for Democrats to say no to a tax cut this year by setting aside last year's mega-bill in favor of individual votes on some of its choicer parts. The tactic might work. In part to neutralize the issue in an election year, the administration and congressional Democrats said again the other day that they, too, are in favor of targeted tax cuts of limited cost.

It's not hard to envision a deal, each side accepting a couple of the other's proposals, the whole to be paid for from the projected budget surplus in other than Social Security funds. No matter that the surplus depends on deep domestic spending cuts that neither party is prepared to make, nor should be. Without the spending cuts, the surplus doesn't materialize, but in the interests of reelection they may be prepared to finesse that. Once again they'd be spending money the government doesn't have to buy votes, but what are revenue projections for, if not for that?

The Republicans suggest that the first proposal they will offer will be aimed at eliminating or reducing the so-called marriage penalty. The penalty is a phony issue; more couples pay lower taxes married than they would if single. The complaint about the "penalty" has less to do with marriage than with the progressive income tax; when two earners marry, their combined income sometimes takes them into a higher tax bracket. Most proposals to ease the marriage penalty are little more than generalized tax relief for the better-off by another name.

The tactical switch by congressional Republicans has the odd effect of isolating the leading Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, who continues to campaign in favor of an omnibus tax cut even as the House Republicans temporarily set the idea aside. He no more than they is willing to put his arm around the spending cuts that the financing of such a tax cut implies. He and his advisers deal with the problem by denying it exists. "Tax cuts, so help me God" is his new motto.

His principal rival, John McCain, thus far has campaigned instead as a truth-teller on taxes, defying party doctrine to say, correctly, that Mr. Bush's plan would be too costly, that too much of the benefit would go to people least in need and that more of whatever money becomes available would be better spent on Social Security and debt reduction. But Mr. McCain may be about to give some ground on this; he is scheduled to elaborate on his tax cut position this week.

Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates play their own game. Both understand that doing all the things they rightly want to do in the long run -- "save" Social Security and Medicare, provide the elderly with prescription drugs, reduce the number of people without health insurance, reduce child poverty, increase aid to education and all the rest -- will require an increase in revenues. Neither will acknowledge it. To the contrary, both suggest the possibility of miscellaneous tax cuts.

The vice president goes so far as to denounce Bill Bradley for making a health care proposal that likely would entail a tax increase. Bill Bradley responds in part by calling for loophole-closing. Mr. Gore says he's for that, too, and no matter that loophole-closing is itself a form of tax increase (as well as a good idea). These two aren't having an argument. They are candidates of similar persuasion engaged in the difficult business of distinguishing themselves from each other while saying "me, too." Their party is doing some of the same with respect to the Republicans, and that's why we're in tax-cut country.