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President Clinton's veto of the irresponsible $792 billion tax cut package pushed through Congress by Republican leaders was no surprise to anyone.

In fact, his warnings very early in the debate should have given GOP leaders plenty of time to figure out what to do next and how to answer some fundamental questions.

Simply put, do they want a tax cut or an issue? Do they want to govern or campaign?

Clinton's willingness to compromise on a roughly $300 billion tax cut -- which should be carefully targeted to help the economy, the middle class and those who need help most -- puts Republican leaders in the uncomfortable position of having to answer those questions.

Still, they are fair questions, particularly given that the surplus Republicans counted on was predicated on Congress making spending cuts no one expects lawmakers to make. Those cuts -- which would decimate many popular programs -- are called for to comply with the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. The act is a key part of the surplus calculation, yet practically everyone in Washington seems to be looking for ways to circumvent it and cut into the hoped-for surplus.

In fact, if Clinton and Congress agree on nothing -- or nothing except a few minor housekeeping tax provisions -- that wouldn't be entirely bad, either. More money would then be available to retire debt, which some economists argue could be the best thing in the long run. It certainly would be better than overheating the economy with a huge tax cut like the one Clinton vetoed.

But under that scenario, the GOP couldn't even take credit for the benefits of reducing the deficit because that would prevent them from bemoaning the lost tax cut. What's a poor party to do?

With all of that as a backdrop, a tax cut along the lines of what Clinton has proposed is the most the country should be considering. The question is whether the GOP wants that kind of modest, affordable tax relief or whether the party wants a full-blown tax-cut debate to take out on the campaign trail.

By presenting Republicans with that very stark choice, Clinton's veto not only constitutes a statement about the president's priorities, it forces the GOP to make one of its own -- one that voters should be able to easily decipher.

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