Sen. Lloyd Bentsen faces a difficult balancing act this week as he helps shepherd a deficit-reduction plan through the Senate.

As chairman of the Finance Committee, he aims to promote a compromise that can pass a divided Senate.As a national Democratic leader, he knows that position could blunt his party's class-conscious attack on President Bush.

So the Texas senator is doing his best to have it both ways - doing the former and talking the latter.

Bentsen and Senate Republicans have crafted a moderate deficit-reduction plan, a collection of new taxes and spending cuts devoid of the soak-the-rich elements House Democrats put in their package.

"When the country has these serious problems, you've got to put the country first and not worry about the political consequences," he said.

But Bentsen also expressed longing for what the House Democrats could do with their overwhelming majority and spiced his discussion with digs at Bush.

"I wanted to raise the tax rate on the top six-tenths of 1 percent of the people," he lamented. "But there was no way I could get the bill out of committee.

"The American people were fed up with our not coming to an agreement and the president not bringing about the agreement, not seeing that kind of leadership," Bentsen said in a television appearance Sunday.

He kept up the criticism in an interview Tuesday.

"I think the president should be here involved and exercising leadership" instead of making campaign trips for Republican candidates, he said.

What does not emerge is whether Bentsen has his own campaign trips at the back of his mind. Will the Democratic vice presidential nominee of 1988 seek the top job in 1992?

"I've got loads to lift here," he laughed.

Those loads include a long list of unpopular tax increases and cuts in benefit programs, raising Americans' costs for everything from beer to doctors' visits.

"This gets in the way of any national political ambition anybody may have," said Jack DeVore, Bentsen's longtime spokesman.

In 1988, another former Senate Finance chairman, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., had his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination derailed in part because he drafted a deficit-reduction plan that included tax increases. Dole tried to make the deficit an issue, refused to sign a no-new-taxes pledge and was defeated by Bush.

But Dole maintains that having served as chairman of the tax-writing committee actually was "a big plus" in his campaign. Compared with other candidates, he had a broad knowledge of federal programs that voters wanted to talk about.

As for his loss, Dole said, "That was partly our fault . . . We sat on a lead we thought we had."

Bentsen's early refusal to exempt home heating oil from a proposed petroleum tax "obviously could be an issue that could be used against him" and must be handled skillfully, he said.