TO STAY within spending limits, most House Republicans and some Democrats voted last week to squeeze federal housing programs for the poor. This week House Republican leaders acknowledged they were considering deferring billions of dollars in income support payments to lower-income working families as well. But congressional zeal in behalf of budget savings appears to extend only so far.

The Senate currently faces the question of ending what amounts to income support, not for low-income families but for oil companies. The Interior Department would require the companies to begin paying royalties based on the open market value of oil and gas extracted from the federal domain. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill that would allow them in many cases to continue to pay less. On a test vote Monday, she was able to marshal 55 of the 60 votes she needs to cut off debate and put the amendment in place. The remaining votes are said to be at hand: all 54 Senate Republicans, the lone independent, former Republican Bob Smith, and five wayward Democrats.

In the end, it is well understood that Congress will breach the spending limits, which are artificially tight. In the meantime, we have pretense to the contrary. But even the pretense produces winners and losers. Oil wins, poor people lose; those are the values of this Congress.

The spending caps represent no one's idea of the true cost of government. They were set in the 1997 budget deal between the president and congressional Republicans to make it appear that the politicians could, too, balance the budget while granting a tax cut. Now it's time to adhere to them, and there aren't the votes. Nor should there be, given the long-term damage that adherence would do. The question isn't whether they'll be exceeded but by how much, how honestly, and who will bear the blame.

To avoid the appearance of breaching them, Congress has been using all manner of gimmicks. Ordinary expenditures for such things as the census and defense have been classified as emergencies, because under the budget rules, emergencies don't count. Various devices have likewise been used to alter not the amount of spending but the timing of it, to move it out of next fiscal year. That's what the House leadership is contemplating with regard to the earned income tax credit, which provides what amount to wage supplements to the working poor. They should be the last victims of budget-cutting, not the first.

A third device has been to avoid deep cuts in the smaller domestic appropriations bills by "borrowing" funds from the larger final ones, for veterans' affairs, housing, labor, health and human services and education. But that has merely concentrated the problem, not solved it. Meanwhile, the housing programs are essentially frozen in a period in which the general prosperity masks increasing need.

The president and Congress knew the appropriations caps they set in 1997 were unlikely ever to be met. The caps were set for show; they were an official lie to which both parties put their names, and from which they continue to try to extricate themselves. The projected surplus in other than Social Security funds over which they have been fighting all year -- the one the Republicans would use to finance their about-to-be-vetoed tax cut -- exists only if you assume that most domestic spending will be cut by more than a fifth in real terms, as the caps require. But the votes don't exist for even the first of these cuts, much less the full mowing; nor is it just Democrats who are turning away. They're living a lie, both parties; that's the reason for the gimmicks. Only the oil subsidy seems unaffected. Are there really no Republicans in the Senate who think it wrong?