Just when it looks like the new federal budget-control agreement is working better than expected, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate begin talking of tax cuts that would blow it to smithereens. Fortunately, neither Sen. George Mitchell nor Rep. Richard Gephardt really means it -- they are just playing politics. Even more fortunately, responsible Democratic lawmakers won't let it happen even if Republicans would cynically go along.
The Mitchell-Gephardt ploy is little more than a sign of Democratic frustration over GOP success in working the tax issue. That these leaders should be hinting at tax cuts just days after House Democrats rallied to preserve leeway to raise taxes under the budget agreement is, of course, an exercise in contradiction. However, the object of the game is not logic but partisan advantage.
Right now that advantage rests with President Bush, who was pilloried by conservatives last fall for signing onto a budget agreement that reneged on his "no-new-taxes" pledge. But it also set up a new mechanism to limit government spending. What few Democrats anticipated was that the spending limitation mechanism would put them in a budget straitjacket that allows White House priorities to prevail. The loyal opposition can deal only at the margins in trying to promote education, health care and other Democratic programs.