Republican congressional leaders returned to the Capitol this week with foreboding, wishing their August recess could have lasted at least one more month. As another session-ending logjam of appropriations bills looms, they lack a coherent strategy or real hope of outwitting a lame-duck Bill Clinton.

The Republicans have given up on a meaningful tax cut and play defense against the Democratic minority's agenda. GOP leaders are determined to avoid the kind of summit with President Clinton that usually demolishes the Republicans. Whether or not they formally negotiate, look for another wholesale surrender to the president, duplicating what happened in 1998.

No plans were laid during the recess to avert an annual Republican disaster. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert never conferred with each other, and no such meeting was scheduled for this week. But meetings alone could not ease the burden on GOP leaders: So many Republican lawmakers -- including influential members of the Appropriations committees -- oppose down-sizing government that they play into Clinton's hands.

The situation ought to make Republican leaders wish they could stay home in Pascagoula, Miss., or Yorkville, Ill. While Hastert has tried hard to make the trains run on time, most appropriations bills are still in the depot. Only one of the 13 bills has been signed by the president. With two headed for vetoes, perhaps 11 will miss the Sept. 30 deadline ending the fiscal year.

To keep the government operating without appropriations, Congress will have to pass a "continuing resolution" providing temporary money -- probably at current funding levels. But because of previous "emergency" spending, the continuing resolution would exceed the legal spending caps. The president would then be forced to order "sequestration": cutting government spending across the board.

Senate Republican leaders rejoice that this will embarrass Clinton into reducing the very programs he wants to expand. More likely, however, it puts the president exactly where he wants to be. Only Clinton, the Republicans seem to be saying, can cut spending; we're not up to it. Given his track record, Clinton may refuse to sequester spending. He might even veto the continuing resolution, threatening a government shutdown. With their unhealed psychological scars from the 1995 shutdown, the Republicans surely would back down.

At the same time, GOP strategists talk about giving the president a taste of his own medicine by challenging him to spend the Social Security surplus if he wants more government spending. But this fiscal high-wire act only increases the dread among risk-averse Republicans.

The problem: Republicans do not have the will to control the growth of government. Substantial numbers of them -- around 50 or 60 in the House and a dozen or so in the Senate -- are dedicated to accelerated spending. Moreover, members of the Senate and House Appropriations committees comprise their own culture, which is committed to rising spending. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay has applied pressure on "appropriators" in the House, but he is helpless in trying to restrain their Senate counterparts.

The consensus on Capitol Hill foresees another catch-all appropriations bill sometime before Thanksgiving that continues the inexorable growth of government, with no tax cut this year. Senate Republicans are adamant that once Clinton vetoes the Republican tax cut, that ends chances for 1999.

Republicans are drifting on taxes as well as spending. Far from the "risky" venture claimed by Clinton, the back-loaded measure's reductions are puny in view of heavy taxation and looming budget surpluses. Stephen Moore's computers at the Cato Institute show that total reduction in taxation would be 0.5 percent the first year, 0.8 percent the second and 1.4 percent the third.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen, in a nationwide survey Aug. 23, discovered that most Americans think the congressional tax cut is much bigger than it really is -- and more often than not, they like it. While Rasmussen found 51 percent of Americans support the bill, their numbers rise to 58 percent among those who believe the tax cut is greater than 10 percent.

So, why did Republicans not attempt a real tax cut and real budget restraint? That would have taken courage and discipline, both lacking in the GOP on Capitol Hill.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.