For those who enjoy the high and low comedy of politics, the final days of budget negotiations rival Lucille Ball's best madcap moments, as legislators scramble for every morsel while putting the face of victory on defeat.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey captured the haggling spirit of country auctions, Middle Eastern bazaars or Wall Street trading rooms with a verbal slip. "The store is still open," the Texas Republican declared, before quickly correcting himself to say he meant "the floor is still open." He was right the first time.

If this year's budget store has a proprietor, his name is Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip from Sugar Land, Tex., who seized control of Republican strategy. DeLay's Store started the year trying to sell one thing and ended up selling another. In the bargaining, Democrats say, DeLay mostly sold low and President Clinton mostly won. There's something to this, but DeLay may yet prove to be one shrewd salesman.

What DeLay and his fellow Republicans gave up on was their promise to live within unrealistic spending "caps" imposed as part of a budget deal with Clinton two years ago. They broke the caps by some $30 billion. So DeLay concocted a new cause--a promise not to "raid" the Social Security trust fund, which put its $147 billion out of Congress's reach.

He didn't reach that goal either. Various gimmicks put close to $20 billion in spending off the books, covering up a stealth raid on the fund.

None of this seems to have helped Republicans with the public. Recent polls show voters leaning Democratic in next year's crucial House elections and still preferring Democrats to Republicans as the party to protect Social Security.

But for all the Republicans' failures, DeLay may nonetheless have established a principle that will make it much harder for Democrats to push for new programs in the near future.

How? The federal budget is seen in theory as divided into two parts: the money that goes into the Social Security trust fund, and everything else. With so many baby boomers paying taxes into the system, the Social Security fund has run a surplus even as the rest of the budget ran a deficit. Before the overall budget came into balance, Social Security receipts were used to mask the size of the deficit. But few Republicans complained when Ronald Reagan and George Bush "raided" the Social Security fund for this purpose.

That's because "raid" is a deceptive but clever term that DeLay and his allies are now using for a reason. In the deficit days, Republicans could block new spending by arguing that every new program would only "balloon the deficit." But now, there's a big surplus. Democrats, including presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley, argue that some of it should be used for long-unmet public needs--health care coverage, preschool and after-school programs, education and efforts to ease poverty.

By declaring the Social Security fund untouchable, DeLay has put a new lid on spending--in effect, he's created a new deficit. Clinton has gone along with DeLay's logic, though the president would have loosened restrictions on spending with new revenues, notably higher tobacco taxes.

It must be said that DeLay is only borrowing from the Democrats' list of Greatest Tactical Hits. Clinton and his party have used worries about the future solvency of Medicare and Social Security to block irresponsibly high Republican tax cuts. DeLay simply did the same thing with spending. Social Security was called the "third rail" of American politics. Now it has become the great trump card.

Yes, Clinton has won some modest new spending and blocked Republican efforts to undercut various environmental regulations. But the answer to the question colorfully posed by Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee--"Where's the real beef in this situation?"--is that Congress has assembled a status quo budget providing a few slabs of pork but little in the way of fresh beef.

This outcome contradicts the public's desire for new departures, reflected in poll after poll. In a time of great but unevenly shared prosperity, it's hard to argue that the federal government should stand by and do nothing for those being left back. But in the short term, DeLay thinks he can finesse that argument by playing the Social Security card.

So, sure, things are a little messy down at DeLay's Store in this ugly budget season. Democrats can crow about Republican setbacks. But it would be a mistake to write DeLay's enterprise off as bankrupt. It's still in business.