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TO PLAN A AND PLAN B, JUST ADD MONEY, AND VOILA -- WASHINGTON HAS A BUDGET

Money can't buy happiness. But it can make politicians look like statesmen.

Blessed with extra tax revenues from a healthy economy, President Clinton and congressional Republicans were able to use the dollars to paper over differences and produce a plan to balance the federal budget by 2002.

The compromises are hardly perfect. But when one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress -- and when each party contains its own deep divisions -- no one should expect perfection.

What the public should expect is reasonable accommodation rather than a government shutdown or never-ending delays and temporary extensions. Are you listening, Albany?) That's what the White House and GOP leaders provided, using growing tax revenues to give a little to each side.

The result is a deal that extends the benefits of the $500-per-child tax credit to the working poor, as Clinton rightly demanded, while also extending it to more of the well-off.

Republicans get their capital-gains tax cut, but give up shielding the taxable gains from inflation. Clinton wins $24 billion for children's health care -- $8 billion more than the GOP wanted -- but the GOP gave states extra flexibility.

Clinton won significant victories in education spending and protecting workfare recipients -- and the low-wage workers they might replace -- while the GOP got to cut the estate tax and create new individual retirement accounts.

In short, the deal was reached by taking one from Column A and one from Column B when the two sides presented their lists. Under current economic conditions, that will work. None of the provisions looks especially frightening, at least so far. And the White House did win significant protections and benefits for the people who need help most.

In fact, the drama that had built up over the possible failure to reach agreement this week had more to do with Congress's Aug. 1 vacation -- and the GOP's need for a deal -- than with any real impact on the economy or the country.

Since Clinton's 1993 budget plan, the deficit has been coming down at a surprisingly fast pace and would have continued to do so even without this deal. And while the compromise represents a political achievement, much of what both sides wanted actually is of dubious economic merit.

The across-the-board tax cuts, for instance, could reignite inflation. And while popular, indiscriminate tuition tax credits are likely to do little to spur college enrollment.

Most of the $140 billion in savings -- $115 billion worth -- will come from reducing Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals. But controversial changes approved by the Senate died amid House opposition and only tepid backing by Clinton. That means the issue will have to be revisited.

What this deal does -- if it works -- is allow both parties to say they cut taxes and take credit for balancing a budget that appeared on its way to balancing itself.

In the long run, the deal probably will prove a lot more important to politicians running for re-election than it will to its supposed beneficiaries. But at least it appears to do minimal harm. And considering where the GOP started the negotiations, that's worth cheering.

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