Being forced finally to do something about the deficit, even in a limited way, has brought Washington to the edge of a breakdown. And the end is not yet in sight.

Both houses of Congress have now passed their versions of a five-year deficit-reduction plan, but the Senate and House bills are so drastically dissimilar that the government may face another budgetary shutdown before the differences can be ironed out.For the most part, real statesmanship and political courage have been conspicuous by their absence in this whole mess.

The new fiscal year started Oct. 1, but the failure to produce an acceptable budget plan nearly shut down the government Oct. 8 and forced President Bush to sign an emergency measure extending federal spending to Oct. 19. Now, he has extended the stopgap spending to Oct. 24. On each occasion, Bush has said he wouldn't do this and each time he has.

The House deficit-reduction package passed this week 379-37. The Democratic-backed bill would raise income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans from 28 percent to 33 percent, impose a 10 percent surtax on those with incomes over $1 million a year and raise beer and cigarette taxes, but eliminates any gasoline tax hike or Medicare increase.

The Senate version, passed by only a 54-46 vote, would raise federal gasoline taxes by 9.5 cents a gallon and boost Medicare fees, but would not impose higher taxes on the wealthy.

Of the two approaches, the Senate version has less support. Yet Bush has threatened to veto the House plan to raise taxes on the rich. This basic disagreement - which has produced strong emotions in Congress - is going to be hard to resolve in conference committee. There is no quick answer in sight, but there is that Oct. 24 deadline.

The deadline may find the government once again teetering on the edge of fiscal insolvency with Congress, the administration and the two political parties locked into irreconcilable differences. And there may not be another extension possible.

This inability to get a grip on the budget and deficit spending is producing a growing disgust among the American people - a cynicism that transcends party lines and is feeding a "throw all the rascals out" movement.

That's hardly the best kind of attitude for Americans to have, but it must be admitted that Congress and the administration have brought it on themselves by refusing for years to really face facts about the deficit.

The country certainly deserves better leadership than it has been getting on this issue.