PRESIDENT CLINTON wants to spend a significant share of the projected budget surplus to provide health insurance to some of the estimated 44 million Americans who lack it. It's an unassailable goal, far worthier, in our view, than most of the tax cuts being discussed as possible fruits of that same surplus. As outlined by the president, it would be affordable as well--and as a stand-alone proposition, it deserves support.

The trouble is, it is unlikely to come up in Congress in such isolation. Republican leaders have vowed to oppose spending increases such as this. But they may well find--so the White House is betting--that this is so popular a cause that the opposition is impossible to maintain. Their likely tactic then will be to do what they did last year when confronted with similar proposals to raise the minimum wage and step up regulation of managed care--try to surround and swaddle the underlying bill in otherwise unacceptable tax cuts. The Democrats then have to choose between dropping the underlying bill or paying too high a social and fiscal price for it.

The temptation among at least some Democrats will be to deal. They can blame the Republicans for the tax cuts even while voting for them and thereby neutralizing the issue in the campaign. Why not, since the forecasters are even now in the process of doubling their estimate of the surplus? But the forecasters will rightly warn in the fine print that, even if it materializes, the surplus will be temporary. The government continues to face long-term claims far greater than its resources can support.

Assume that the Social Security share of the surplus is set aside and saved--used to pay down debt--until agreement can be reached on restructuring the program. There will still be about $1 trillion to play with over the next 10 years if the forecasts prove accurate. But the $1 trillion figure is deceptive, since out of it must come: the money to strengthen Medicare's finances, which are in even worse shape than Social Security's; the money for adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, if that's what the president and Congress decide; most likely more money for defense; and whatever additional funds this or future administrations and Congresses decide to spend on other domestic needs from air traffic control and reducing poverty to . . . reducing the number of uninsured. The president will have a laundry list in his budget, and he himself will propose tax cuts. By no means will the Democrats let the Republicans have that side of the ledger to themselves.

Last year we said stalemate on the budget would be preferable to a trade of indiscriminate spending increases for tax cuts at the next generation's expense; better just to pass the appropriations bills and go home, as in the end they did. This year, the surplus forecast is stronger. There's room for a moderate deal based on the right priorities. But it's again true that stalemate would be better than a bad deal. Prudence--the looming costs that aren't reflected in the surplus forecast--requires that any agreement be limited. And the purpose ought to be something more than buying votes in the election. A reduction in the number of uninsured would qualify as a serious accomplishment.