PRESIDENT CARTER has now challenged the federal budget that is taking shape in Congress. He charges that Congress wants to spend too much on defense at the cost of domestic programs.

A brief note: in January, Mr. Carter decided not to try to balance his budget before the election. Then in March he changed his mind, under congressional pressure, and said he would pull it into balance after all. That drew vehement protests from important elements in his party -- some of the big cities, most of labor, spokesmen for blacks. Mr. Carter is now moving to reassure them that they have not been forgotten. But before everyone gets up on horseback to do battle over the high principles of defense versus social progress, it might be noted that for the coming year the differences here are not large.

The budget committees in both houses have voted revisions to Mr. Carter's budget, and those revisions have been compromised into the conference report scheduled to come to the House floor today. That compromise tilts toward the Senate's version, with its emphasis on the military. But part of the increase represents only an adjustment to a more realistic forecast of inflation. Last winter, Mr. Carter called for an increase in defense spending next year of 3 percent beyond inflation. The congressional resolution would set an increase of 3 to 4 percent beyond inflation, the precise number depending on your guess about the future inflation rate.

The more substantial issue is the long-term direction of military spending. The congressional resolution set a high authorization, implying a further acceleration of the defense budget in 1982 and beyond. That's a subject very much worth debating, but the figure here is not binding. This first budget resolution is a tentative and rough outline to guide Congress in its work over the summer.

As for the cuts in domestic programs, they would be real and they would be painful. But they are not intolerable. Some federally subsidized jobs would evaporate. Some money for highways and, unfortunately, for mass transit would disappear. Postal subsidies would shrink. But, contrary to Mr. Carter's denunciation, there is little here that would affect the recession or the recovery from it.

This budget resolution is less important for its precise numbers than for two basic political judgements. The first is that most of the time the budget ought to be in balance. Everyone understands that it will slide into deficit during the recession, but this budget resolution is designed -- like Mr. Carter's March budget -- to bring it back into balance as the recovery picks up momentum. The second judgement here is that defense spending has to be increased, even if it means trimming some domestic programs. The numbers are open to discussion, but the principle is right.

This congressional budget resolution is a reasonable and careful job. It differs in only a limited degree from Mr. Carter's own budget -- but, to that degree, the congressional budget is preferable. It is a budget that the House ought to support.