WHEN Congress returns from its Easter recess April 14, the real budget games begin in the convoluted and sometimes incomprehensible rite of spring ... and summer ... and usually fall, called the federal budget process.
President Clinton finished the first heat last week when the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a budget resolution that endorsed his five-year economic plan and the outlines of next year's budget.
The resolution beat the legal deadline of April 15 by two weeks, a deadline that has been routinely ignored by Congress in other years.
Mr. Clinton's job-stimulus package is still hung up by filibustering Senate Republicans. But that $16.3 billion package would be added to the current year's budget, so it is on a separate track and is tiny compared to the almost total $1.5 trillion budget.
The resolution includes one of the highest tax increases ever and, theoretically, cuts the deficit by half a trillion dollars over five years.
But the budget bill is little more than a statement of good intentions for harder work ahead.
"At this point, we don't know much about what the budget will look like," says Steven Schier, a political scientist who is an expert on the budget at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
"Most of the budget politics since 1981 has been Congress saying: `Now we're really going to do it' " and reduce the deficit, he says. "Now they've done it again."
The resolution sets limits on overall spending for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and sets revenue targets as well. It also sends instructions to congressional committees about how much spending they should authorize.
Those instructions have now gone out, beginning what is known as reconciliation. If the various committees do not comply with their spending instructions, then the Budget Committee in each chamber has the authority to do it for them.
House committees are to report their plans to the Budget Committee by May 14. The Senate deadline is June 18. Reconciliation is expected to play out through the summer as committee members haggle over specific program cuts and taxes that can pass both chambers.
The process begins when the president submits his budget proposal to Congress. The legal deadline for this is Feb. 1. Clinton submitted his proposal February 17, but no one ever complains.
The president's budget has all the legal force of a whispered suggestion, but in fact it becomes the basis that even a hostile Congress works from.
Then Congress sets the outline of the budget debate with the budget resolution. Reconciliation follows, which sets the authorized spending in the budget.
ONCE reconciliation is over - administration optimists are betting on August - the Appropriations Committees take over.
The 13 subcommittee chairmen of these panels are known as "cardinals" for their power over the purse strings. Their final, closed-door meetings that divvy up spending are dubbed the "college of cardinals."
In the past, appropriations subcommittees have deleted spending for major projects like the space station to spend money instead on veterans and public housing, a move reversed on the House floor.
One subcommittee deliberately underestimated food-stamp spending to spend money on other programs, Dr. Schier says. Then, when food-stamp funds ran short, Congress was forced to pass supplemental funding because food stamps are an entitlement.
Historically, in the 1790s, Appropriations Committees were the first element of the budget process. Other elements were added over the years - much of them during the Nixon administration - in the ongoing attempt to bring spending under control.