WASHINGTON - With President Clinton's economic program squeaking by in the House on a vote of 219 to 213, the question of how much spending to cut to reduce the deficit is still open to debate.

On this issue, the White House has been sadly out of touch with the public and with Congress.

Shortly after Clinton submitted his five-year budget plan, Democrats countered by demanding $50 billion more in spending cuts. It was a remarkable ground swell from loyal party members who nevertheless felt strongly about making the President's budget credible, and Clinton acquiesced.

The Democrats, long derided by their Republican opponents as free-spending champions of government check-writing, have not finished with their demands for fiscal restraint.

That is the message in the alternative budget proposal being offered by Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., and Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., both members of the Finance Committee. Their legislation will be at the heart of the Senate budget debate once Congress returns from the Memorial Day recess.

The Boren-Danforth alternative would take a serious swipe at federal entitlement programs that, more than anything else, make the deficit such a monstrous problem. Mandatory federal payments for Social Security, federal retirees, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs now account for half of all government outlays.

The bill would trim by two percentage points annual cost-of-living adjustments for all federal retirees and for Social Security recipients receiving over $600 per month. For example, someone receiving a payment of $800 getting an adjustment of 4% for inflation would only get 2%. These restrictions would last for five years, for a total savings of $22.7 billion.

Other entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid would have limits set on their growth. The caps would allow payments to grow at the rate of inflation, plus population growth, plus an allowance of 3% in fiscal 1995, 2% in 1996, 1% in 1997, and zero in subsequent years. Savings over five years would total $170 billion.

Over all, the bipartisan Senate plan would reduce the deficit by $542 billion compared with the $496 billion in the Clinton plan. The spending cuts are greater, thanks to the proposals on entitlements, and the tax increases are smaller. The energy tax is dumped.

It is a far better approach than the sham adopted by the House that merely sets spending targets on entitlements. If a program's spending goes over the limit, the President and Congress would simply revisit the issue and decide whether to seek more taxes, cut benefits, or do nothing. It is a formula for more idle budgeteering, nothing more.

Asked why the administration is not getting behind the Boren-Danforth plan, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said it is not politically feasible. It will never get past the Senate Finance Committee, he told reporters.

Bentsen's statement speaks volumes about how the administration is out of touch. It may be true that the plan will not get out of committee, but it responds to a deep-seated public willingness to get tough on curbing federal spending.

Instead, Clinton and his aides have put together a traditional and outdated Democratic package loaded with tax increases and a collection of nickel-and-dime spending cuts in hundreds of obscure federal accounts.

Democrats as well as Republicans sense the impatient public mood with the annual gravy-train exercises in Congress. It is an impulse that borders on disgust and explains why Ross Perot can hang around the halls of Congress and attract attention months after the election.

The unstated reason the President has not embraced the Boren-Danforth plan is that he is struggling desperately to demonstrate he is in command of events, which is the true mark of leadership. In reality, he is ignoring events and selling the public short.

Clinton is missing a chance to lead by demanding harder cuts in spending, cuts that capture the public imagination. Instead, he rails about how difficult it is to get his message through a hostile press and high-paid lobbyists inside the Beltway. The problem is, he is the one who is not getting the message.

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