If the president is playing games with the budget, so too are the House Democrats. Their basic position comes straight out of the 1984 election: yes, there's a need for a tax increase; no, we're not going to take the lead in seeking it. At 525 electoral votes to 13, that's understandable enough. Now, however, they've added a new level of fussiness. No, they don't want to vote for a tax increase to pay for defense -- but no, they don't want domestic programs to be contingent on a tax increase, either. You could be forgiven for asking what it is, in the real world, that they do want. They are trying to have it too many ways at once.

*The framework for the budget debate remains last winter's Gramm-Rudman amendment. The Supreme Court is apparently about to rule on the legality of the triggering mechanism that made Gramm-Rudman famous. Even without the mechanism, the expectations created by the amendment will be in place. It was agreed that Congress and the president should bring next fiscal year's deficit down to about $150 billion from this year's likely level of around $200 billion. It was also agreed that defense and domestic programs (excepting Social Security and the major programs for the poor) should bear the burden of that deficit reduction more or less equally. A tax increase would, of course, reduce that burden. The president was thus put on notice that he could no longer finance his defense budget by watching the deficit rise or cutting domestic spending. He would have to choose between his positions on taxes and defense.

So as part of the current budget conference, it was suggested last week that there be a trade-off: defense spending would rise above a certain amount only if there were a corresponding tax increase. House leaders replied that they weren't sure they could produce a majority for a tax increase on those terms. Their fear is that instead of gaining votes at both poles of opinion, the combination would lose them. For opposite reasons both Republicans and liberal Democrats would vote no. The chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, Pete Domenici and Lawton Chiles, then proposed instead that the tax increase be divided, so that some domestic programs would be contingent on it as well. The Democrats are said to like that even less.

*The House Democrats are too much on the defensive. They know a tax increase is called for, they want to protect domestic programs, but they fear being labeled tax-and-spend. As a party, moreover, they are divided if not ambivalent on defense. Their own Armed Services chairman has told them that they should come up a little on defense -- that if their goal is to smooth out but not undo the Reagan buildup, the figures in their budget resolution are too low. The goal of maintenance is the one they should adopt. For discipline's sake, Congress badly needs to agree on a budget resolution. Tying defense and taxes together is the right way to do it.