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Forget deficit reduction. With all but zero chance to balance the budget in this election year, the annual fiscal exercise will be less a serious effort to save money than a party-defining brawl over the role of the federal government.

Problem or problem solver? Out-of-control behemoth in need of radical downsizing or inefficient but well-intentioned bureaucracy that could use some modest changes? Let the battle begin.Betting that most voters dislike Washington as much as they do, Republicans are sticking with virtually the same ambitious budget plan President Clinton vetoed last year, which would transfer big pieces of the government out of the capital and slash spending for social programs.

This year they call it the "Dole budget," after presumed GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, for whom it will serve as a campaign manifesto.

GOP leaders muscled that budget through the House after brisk debate May 15-16 on a largely party-line vote, 226-195.

In the Senate, though, the GOP budget still faces as many as 70 or more amendments. There's no doubt Republicans will win, but the final vote may not come until mid-week.

That means it's it highly unlikely that the House and Senate can resolve their minor differences, agree to a compromise budget and pass it before the Memorial Day recess begins Friday, as GOP leaders originally planned.

Democrats have coalesced, more or less, around President Clinton's budget, which is intended to appeal to voters who want a leaner and smarter government bureaucracy but want to leave most programs as is. Like the GOP budget, Clinton's has Congressional Budget Office certification that it balances the budget by 2002, but with smaller spending cuts and more limited tax reductions that would end after the year 2000.

Both chambers have officially rejected the Clinton budget, but that was only expected.

A group of centrists from both parties in both chambers are about the only members remaining who still hope that a budget deal will be struck this year, but even they can read the signs. "Both parties want the issue" instead of an agreement, said Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah.

That was evident from floor debate, where the point was not to seek common ground but to stake out battle lines.

"There are two clear views on the floor about where this country is going. Where the Democrats are, where the liberals are, they want to continue the Washington programs they are so proud of; they are hanging on by their fingernails," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Republicans want to "shift power, money and influence out of this city," said House Budget Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, in the by-now-familiar mantra that has become the tag line for the GOP revolution.

In lines just as familiar, House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said that all the Republicans really want to do is cut vital spending programs to provide tax cuts for the wealthy. "Republicans always revert to form; they always want to help people at the top. They believe wealth trickles down," Gephardt said.

"What good does it do if you balance the budget and simultaneously make it impossible for my children to get a decent education?" asked Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn. "What good does it do to talk about balancing the budget if you are going to rip the heart out of the environmental laws that made us a stronger and healthier nation?"

If a big budget-balancing deal seems out of reach this year, Republicans are still likely to succeed in slicing spending for day-to-day government operations. They've retreated from plans to make serious new cuts this year, opting instead for roughly a freeze at the fiscal 1996 level. Even so, that would mark a significant cut from where spending would have been had it increased for inflation.

House appropriators said they would begin work on their fiscal 1997 bills this week. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston, R-La., predicted that floor action would be smoother and quicker than it was last year, when internal GOP disputes hung up several bills.

New rules will sharply restrict controversial policy riders, and appropriatiors are determined that the process will be finished as close to the Oct. 1 beginning of fiscal 1997 as possible.

"It has to," said Livingston. "Everybody wants to be out of here at the end of September" to campaign.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)