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WHAT'S AN 'AMERICAN' FEDERAL BUDGET?

Is investing in kids and trying to reverse trends that show U.S. students scoring poorly in international comparisons less "American" than handing out election-year tax cuts?

That's the question as Democrats and Republicans match philosophies -- and PR machines -- in the battle over President Clinton's 1999 budget plan.

It should be an easy call in places like Buffalo, where outdated school buildings and a shortage of teachers and aides pointedly illustrate what's at stake in Washington's funding battle.

The Senate Budget Committee fired the first shot the other day by narrowly passing a plan to eliminate money sought by Clinton to help schools in rural areas and disadvantaged urban areas.

The president sought $7 billion to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes and another $5 billion to repair or build more schools in poor communities. But Republicans apparently want none of it.

"I don't believe that's an American budget, I don't believe that's what America would vote for in a minute," committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said of the Democratic efforts.

Instead, in a 12-10 party-line vote, the committee decided that the patriotic thing to do would be to convert Clinton's school money into tax cuts and bigger surpluses.

Of course, part of the rhetoric on both sides has to do not so much with patriotism as with that other "P" word -- politics. That can be seen in another looming fight: the battle over how to spend revenue from the proposed $368 billion tobacco deal.

Clinton wants to use some of that money to reduce smoking among kids and improve health care for them.

Still stung by Democratic accusations last year that they wanted to hurt Medicare, Republicans counter with a proposal to use all of the tobacco money to shore up that program. Each side is looking at a bloc of voters -- the Republicans at senior citizens; the Democrats at younger people who are raising families.

Both interests are important to the country, and it's always disheartening to see politicians play them off against each other. Medicare is essential and must be soundly funded. But everyone's future also depends on upgrading the nation's uneven educational system, and the Clinton program targets help where it is most needed.

With federal deficits now under control, there is no need for a politically motivated "either/or" strategy. The nation needs a balanced approach that invests in schools, kids and health care while also beginning to tackle the long-term problems with entitlement programs.

That will mean smaller tax cuts and surpluses than Republicans want. But it also will mean producing a smarter, healthier generation of young people while remaining within the confines of a balanced budget. That, no doubt, is what the public wants.

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