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HOUSE GETS READY TO DEMOLISH THE DEFICIT

Now comes the hard part.

After barreling through the "Contract With America" in fewer than 100 days, the Republican-controlled House returns to the Capitol this week to begin writing legislation to wipe out federal deficits over the next seven years."It will be tough," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, preparing to lead GOP lawmakers on a two-day retreat at week's end to review the challenge ahead.

With Democrats and interest groups already attacking many proposals fiercely, some Republicans concede a risk to their new - and narrow - 14-seat majority in the House.

Yet as they neared the end of a three-week spring break, several Republicans said their constituents profess a readiness to accept the reductions.

Rep. Sam Brownback, a freshman from Kansas, described the reaction back home this way: "It's kind of like going to the doctor and getting the immunization. They say, `Don't show me the needle . . . just do it right and get it over with."'

It will take more than $1 trillion in savings to balance the budget over seven years, and Republicans in the House and Senate are expected to vote to eliminate some programs, force sharp cuts in others and slow the rate of growth in many more. They're eyeing Medicare, the politically popular program that provides health care for the elderly, for as much as $305 billion in savings over seven years according to House Budget Committee proposals.

Hoping to shift the debate away from deficit cuts and onto safer ground politically, Republicans say changes are needed to restore financial stability to the program. "We believe there is no excuse to ignore the problem of Medicare," Gingrich wrote President Clinton, urging the administration to make its own proposals by mid-May.

But Rep. Richard Gephardt, House Democratic leader, said, "I don't think we ought to cut Medicare and Social Security. I don't think we ought to cut student loans and school lunches. I don't think we ought to eat our seed corn."

However it plays out, nothing Congress does is as quick as a shot in the doctor's office.

The process will consume months. Drafting a spending blueprint, reconciling it with one in progress in the Senate, then doing the same with actual spending bills, will in all likelihood take until well past Labor Day, particularly given Gingrich's call to treat Medicare separately.

"There's a lot riding here," said Republican pollster Fred Steeper. "This is one last chance the Democrats may have to paint us as the cutting programs for the poor and needy in order to give a tax cut to the rich."