What is remarkable about the budgets the House and Senate have passed is not their differences, which will now become the subject of much vigorous debate, but their similarities. In fact, it is the similarities as much as the differences that are fueling the debate. No self-respecting Democrat can afford to have it said that he adopted a Republican budget, and the Republicans have a mirror image of that problem. It is in the interests of both parties in this election year to magnify their differences even as, in conference, they compose them.

The Senate passed its budget May 2, the House yesterday. Both would reduce the deficit to the Gramm-Rudman target of $144 billion (and the House $7 billion beyond) mainly by curbing the defense buildup and raising taxes a little. There would be domestic cuts as well, but not in all programs, and mostly these would be manageable.

More than in past years, less than the current rhetoric suggests, both budgets would break with the president. He would raise defense spending more and taxes less, and keep the burden of reducing the deficit on domestic programs. The Senate bore the brunt of this break. The House made it go first, and it had to repudiate a president of its own party. What has happened since the Senate voted has had to do less with substance than show and politics. The parties have been playing off one another.

The House Democrats' dilemma was to produce a budget that shielded them simultaneously from two contradictory charges: that they had gone back to tax-and-spend, or that they were practicing me-tooism. It took a little smoke-and-mirrors, but Budget Committee Chairman William Gray rather neatly pulled it off, and the party owes him for it. The domestic spending total is the same as in the Senate budget (though there's a little shifting of funds among programs); the revenue total is also the same. The deficit would be less because of lower spending for defense. The party's liberals didn't want to vote for a tax increase to sustain defense in the face of domestic cuts; Mr. Gray could assure them that they weren't. The conservatives didn't want to vote for a tax increase unless they could be sure it would go to reduce the deficit; Mr. Gray could assure them that it would.

The weakness lay in exposure to the third charge that the party remains soft on defense. To that Mr. Gray replied both that the difference was not that great and that the total would surely rise in conference. He was helped in this reassurance by the House Republicans, who themselves came out for a defense total lower than the Senate's. Meanwhile, the Democrats also helped the Republicans. Such stalwarts as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, having broken with the president on defense, can now rail at the Democrats for breaking even further and swear to stand for a strong defense by making the Democrats come up a little. When the Democrats then come up, as they cheerfully expect to do, there will be political camouflage for both sides.

Meanwhile, you have a sensible budget that moves in the right directions, does minimal damage to most programs, military and domestic, and begins to take the deficit out of the danger zone. We congratulated the Senate when it did its part in this. Hats off now to the House as well. In a curious way they've done it without the president this year -- and it's worked better that way