THE HOUSE Republicans are describing their budget problem as if it were merely tactical, but it is more than that. They were able to paper over their internal divisions and to agree on a budget outline earlier this year only by ignoring the basic math. To leave room for the tax cut they wanted to give, they had to pretend that they were willing to make deeper cuts in domestic spending than their own caucus is prepared to vote for.

Now, because it's time to pass the spending bills, they are living with the consequences of the fib. Their leaders' initial proposal was to deal with those by further pretense. They would front-load the appropriations process -- not make in some of the early bills the deep cuts that their budget resolution implied. The cuts would instead be bunched in a few major bills to be brought up later. The notion was that, to avert those cuts in health, education, etc., the Democrats would then join in an increase in the appropriations ceiling that would bear both parties' fingerprints, and the political fallout could be diffused.

That Plan A fell apart when Republican conservatives held up the first two minor bills a couple of weeks ago; they don't want to follow a strategy that will lead to a breach of the spending limits. At a caucus yesterday, the conservatives seem to have agreed at Speaker Dennis Hastert's behest to back off; he meanwhile will look for ways to ease and/or spread the cuts more evenly in hopes the spending ceilings can be sustained.

But not even the speaker's supporters think he's done more than buy time. The problem is that the budget doesn't add up. The party wants to protect the Social Security surplus and otherwise maintain budget discipline while granting a significant tax cut, increasing defense spending and avoiding cuts in domestic programs that could do real harm and will come back to haunt it at the polls. Only with rubber dollars can they satisfy all those contradictory goals at once.

The president proposed a partial way out in the form of a tobacco tax increase, but the Republicans don't like that, either. Mr. Hastert "made a compelling argument that if we want to stay the majority, we've got to act like the governing party," Rep. Ray LaHood said after yesterday's meeting. He's right, but that means making choices that thus far in the budget process the party has finessed.