To hammer away at House Democrats for not taking a $98 billion tax increase to the floor is like blaming Lee for not having another go at Gettysburg.

As arguments over legal precedent and political weakness are waged back and forth, many seem to miss the central reason for moving directly to conference with the Senate: reducing a catastrophic federal deficit by $98 billion over the next three years.

It doesn't require tactical genius to appreciate the remote odds of winning passage of a mammoth tax increase coming out of the Democratic-controlled Ways and Means Committee, given the power politics of last year.

Anyone who has observed the political calendar and the collective passion of Washington's tax lobby (already scorned by Senate Republicans) will understand the difficulty of protecting the many solid tax reforms hard won by Bob Dole. Add to that the very real question of presidential endorsement--and the political clout that goes with it.

Taking this unusual legislative detour-- distasteful as it is to many of us--moves a tax bill one major step closer to the president's desk. It avoids, for the moment, forcing a very nervous House to choose whether to make good on our budget promise to raise $98 billion in revenues.

If any evidence for caution is required, note the letter just sent to the president by 57 conservative Republicans declaring their refusal to vote for the Senate's $98 billion tax bill. Of those 57, all but two voted for that identical tax increase demanded by the Latta budget. How easy it is to sign an I.O.U. in June--and to renege in July.

The excuses for running from a tax bill are many. I am well aware that our approach to this conference must alter neither the paternity nor the themes of the Republican tax increase.

Let's face it, Republicans wrote a tax bill that has been in the bottom drawers of Democratic tax reformers for years. Never mind that they are making up for the gross excesses of last year's fiscal Mardi Gras. Never mind that they are under great pressure from political pollsters to reverse the broad perception that the GOP is the party of limousines and belching smoke stacks.

As to the suggestion that House conferees tiptoe over and simply initial the Senate tax and spending bill--nonsense. Barber Conable, ranking minority member on the committee, and I have every intention of leading our respective conferees into straightforward negotiations with the Senate.

The Republican bill is in need of some improvement. On his way to an exciting victory, Sen. Dole was forced to permit a few holes to be punched into the bill. What was meant to be a revenue increase package now bears a series of revenue losers that invite correction in conference. House conferees will also seek to strengthen a number of major provisions in the Senate bill to better meet the standards set in the president's original tax proposals.

The precise outcome of our negotiations is unknown. But hastening the final writing of a tax bill, along with even more sensitive spending cuts, greatly foreshortens the uncertainty that is clearly playing havoc with financial markets.

Not being an economist, I lack the license to predict the effect of a $98 billion deficit cut on interest rates or corporate investment or unemployment. But my political senses tell me that our failure to pass a tax bill would not only lower the nation's confidence in Congress, but also present one of the broadest November targets ever.

As a postscript, I would add that it is ultimately the president's choice whether Congress accepts such a significant tax increase. Thus far, his endorsement of the Senate bill has been tentative--and faint. Before bringing a compromise up for a final vote, both Bob Dole and I will need much more visible support from the White House. Both in word and deed.