When Bill Clinton faced his Republican congressional antagonists across the table last Tuesday, he was not the same president who hurled jeremiads at them five days earlier. It wasn't necessary. The White House session was less a confrontation than mopping up after a GOP surrender.

While House Majority Leader Dick Armey called the talks "exciting," that is perhaps the session's least accurate descriptive adjective. President Clinton lacked his usual fervor, perhaps because the overriding issue of government spending was not in doubt. Both sides have bought rising spending levels that explode the spending caps approved in 1997. The dirty little secret is that they have agreed to spend every penny of the $38 billion FY '00 surplus not dedicated to Social Security. Nothing is left for a tax cut. So much for the Republican revolution.

Republican leaders in both houses have been overwhelmed by "the appropriators": members of the appropriations committees who comprise a Capitol Hill subculture. Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska, tough and knowledgeable, has imposed his will on his leadership. First-year House Chairman C. W. (Bill) Young of Florida is less a force than his committee's professional staff, but the outcome is the same. "Our appropriators are at least as good at spending as the president is," a Senate Republican told me.

Since the Republicans had stopped really trying to reduce spending, Tuesday's session at the White House was characterized by both sides as "businesslike" and "constructive." Of course, both sides went through the motions of partisan jostling as when Clinton and House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt complained about the House Republican television commercials assailing Democrats on Social Security.

The president and the Republicans also quibbled about money to reduce public school class size and to help financially endangered nations. But Clinton was mostly concerned about process. He insisted that he must see the whole appropriations picture before the following Tuesday's deadline for signing the Defense money bill.

Republicans celebrated the meeting's outcome as killing Clinton's 55-cents-a-pack tobacco tax increase, which never had any chance for passage anyway. On the spending side, Clinton did not have much cause for complaint. Having failed to cut individual bills, House Republican leaders have called for a 1.4 percent across-the-board reduction.

The final Commerce-Justice-State bill coming out of the conference committee is $800 million above the House measure, $2.2 billion over the Senate version and exceeds the $14 billion provided for it by the non-Social Security surplus. This bill earmarks $41.7 million for pet projects of lawmakers, including $3 million for the Bronx Museum of Arts and $2.5 million for the City of Hazard, Ky. Not surprisingly, a Democratic committee member -- Rep. Jose Serrano -- represents the part of the Bronx containing the museum, and a senior Republican on the committee -- Rep. Harold Rogers -- represents Hazard.

The Labor-Health and Human Services bill, the last big money bill of this budget season, is a classic. It exceeds Clinton's spending request and thus reflects the views of the moderate Republican subcommittee chairmen who handled it: Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Edward Porter of Illinois. It also reflects the culture of the appropriators when it renames existing government agencies as the Arlen Specter National Library of Medicine and the "Thomas R. Harkin Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" (memorializing the subcommittee's ranking Democrat).

That was too much for Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is no appropriator. "We have reached a new low in Washington's culture of arrogance when federal agencies can be renamed in honor of the incumbent senators who control their budgets," the independent Republican declared.

Coburn has waged a lonely, uphill battle to control appropriations and will return to Muskogee, Okla., to practice medicine in 2001 after completing three self-limited terms. But two young freshman Republicans -- Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania -- joined Coburn and 20 other Republicans in voting against a bloated Interior appropriations bill last Thursday. That required 27 Democrats to pass the bill and rescue the GOP leadership from further embarrassment as it spends the surplus.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.