Congress -- the Senate especially -- is already at a crucial point in this session. If the Senate shunts aside the budget resolution that has now been sent to the floor, the two houses may drift into the same pattern of indecision as last year. Then it took until August to adopt a resolution, most of the rest of the year to agree on the appropriations and other bills to carry out the resolution; in the end, too little was accomplished. And last year was easy. Gramm-Rudman had not been invented yet, nor was it an election year.

The Senate Budget Committee has produced a good budget. It is, in the context of today's politics, a balanced document. The defense budget would be held level, domestic spending would come down a little and taxes go up by a like amount, all to ease the deficit out of the danger zone.

As last year, so this: most other major bills depend on and must await the budget resolution. The good intentions of Gramm-Rudman were that, to leave time for the rest of the process, both houses would complete action on the resolution by April 15, which is next Tuesday; they will scarcely have started. The Senate Finance Committee is at work on tax reform. Should it include a tax increase? The Armed Services committees will shortly begin writing a new defense bill. What spending path should they assume in deciding what weapons to approve? The Senate is scheduled soon to take up a higher education bill. How large should these programs be? Competing Superfund bills are now in conference. How large a program should the conferees provide for?

The House is laying back on the budget. The president has badly frightened the Democrats there; particularly on taxes, they want the Republican Senate to vote first. Meanwhile, just under half the Senate Republicans have said they will oppose the committee resolution (even though a majority of committee Republicans voted for it). Like the president, these mainly conservative members of his party want the deficit burden kept on domestic programs.

Precisely to avoid this outcome, Senate Democrats should support the committee compromise. It is about as good as they are likely to get.

Majority Leader Bob Dole should then also support it, or something close enough to pass. His support is crucial. It is a difficult choice for him; his party is divided, and he does not want a breach with either wing. He has indicated that he, too, would like a little more for defense and less of a shift toward taxes. But the more votes he picks up in this direction, the more he will lose in the other. In the end Mr. Dole will be judged by how well he has led, and without an early budget, he will not be seen to have led well.