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The budget battle on the Potomac will be just as vicious as before when Congress returns from its summer recess to confront Clinton administration claims that Republicans are robbing domestic programs to pay for tax cuts.

But the argument at least ought to be an honest debate, not one in which one side plays games with the numbers. That's what the Department of Housing and Urban Development is doing in protesting cuts in some vital programs that could harm cities like Buffalo.

While HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo laments the "devastating impact" of cuts recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, what he doesn't say is that the overall HUD budget actually would increase by $2 billion under the committee's proposal.

While the committee cut $1.6 billion from a host of programs, the overall HUD budget would rise from $24 billion to $26 billion. While that's still short of the $28 billion President Clinton proposed, it is an increase, not the decrease that Cuomo implies by sending out press releases focusing on specific programs while ignoring the overall budget.

In fact, a committee spokeswoman notes that HUD got one of the more significant increases as both Congress and the administration struggle to meet artificial budget caps foolishly agreed to in the 1997 budget deal.

Republicans want to complement that prior foolishness by insisting on $792 billion in tax cuts, which they'd have to starve domestic programs to pay for if they still plan to adhere to the budget agreement.

That's what Cuomo and the rest of the administration rail against, as HUD laments what it says would be Buffalo's $9 million share of the $1.6 billion cut. That $9 million would come from local programs ranging from those supplying rental-assistance vouchers and doing housing rehab for poor families to those combating housing discrimination and removing lead paint from old homes to protect children.

Those are all worthwhile programs and the nation should debate whether it makes sense to cut back on such initiatives while financing a massive tax cut whose benefits would go disproportionately to the wealthy.

But the debate should be an honest one. The administration can win on the merits. It shouldn't undercut its own credibility by playing numbers games to make misleading arguments.

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