OVER the next few weeks you'll see big headlines from Washington about a titanic budget struggle between Congress and the White House. As you glance at these stories on your way to more interesting reading - an update on Bolivian tin mining, perhaps - keep this in mind: Much of the argument is about details. In a broad sense, this is a war that congressional Republicans have already won.
Not that budget fine print isn't important. These ''details'' involve billion-dollar swings in funding for Medicare and other major programs.
But Newt Gingrich and his GOP revolutionaries have succeeded in changing Washington's frame of budget reference. Take a favorite Republican subject, tax cuts. President Clinton and GOP congressional leaders differ on how large any tax cut should be, and who should be benefit. But they aren't arguing about whether there should be a tax cut at all.
Nor is there disagreement about the goal of a balanced-budget plan. The question dividing the Capitol and the White House is when the government should aim to have its books in the black. Should it be 2002, as the GOP wants? Or should it be later, as Clinton would prefer?
''The debate is largely on the Republicans' terms,'' says George Edwards, a presidential scholar from Texas A&M University.
It's a similar situation to that which prevailed in the early days of President Reagan's time in office, Mr. Edwards says. Back then, riding the wave of Reagan's electoral victory, the new White House leadership moved quickly to set the US political agenda. Republicans and Democrats squabbled over the size of Mr. Reagan's tax cut, not whether it should occur. An early '80s boost in defense spending became a fait accompli - with its size the only issue up for real debate.
When President Clinton took office he, too, set the city's frame of reference, with health-care reform eventually emerging as his top priority. Its defeat shows that sometimes, you need votes, too - not just debate control.
It has taken more than just victory at the polls last November to bring congressional Republicans as far as they have come. It has taken a partisan plan, based on the Contract With America, cohesion in Congress, and strong (some might complain dictatorial) control by the new House Speaker.
''Whether you like the Contract With America or not, it's still the closest thing to real party government we've had in this country for a long time,'' says Edwards.
Indeed, there are increasing signs that with some of their big budget changes the GOP is marching down a politically unpopular road. A new New York Times/CBS poll found almost 60 percent of respondents disapprove of the Republicans' proposed cuts in Medicare. Similarly, 60 percent judged that balancing the budget was a more important goal than cutting taxes. And more than 80 percent believe that even if the GOP tax and spending plan passes, the federal budget won't actually be in balance seven years from now.
And in any case GOP dominance of the budget wars does not necessarily translate into political defeat for President Clinton. In complaining about certain aspects of the GOP plan, such as its $270 million Medicare reduction, the president has appeared to be defending values, as well as a large voting block, the elderly. With his likely veto of the huge budget reconciliation package now moving through Congress, he will set the stage for a final package that will require the involvement of negotiators from both the legislative and executive ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The one thing Clinton won't look is irrelevant. Considering where he stood in the immediate aftermath of last November's elections, that's real progress.
''Now, he's got to be part of the process,'' says Tom Cronin, a presidential scholar and head of Whitman College in Washington state.
At time of writing, the GOP appeared close to passing their massive tax-and-budget-plan, otherwise known as reconciliation legislation, in both the House and Senate. Merely getting this huge bill to the floor consistutes something of a victory, as it contains a sweeping welfare reform, Medicare reductions, Medicaid cuts, and a host of smaller but still controversial legislative changes - all while aiming at a balanced budget in seven years.
The next step is a House-Senate conference to iron out differences between their bills. That is likely to take about two weeks.
Then, if the situation remains unchanged, Clinton will probably veto the bill. He'll hold out for smaller Medicare cuts, and other changes that he believes will produce ''a budget that reflects our values,'' he said on Oct. 25.