Every so often the House plays what might be called "the debt-limit game." Yesterday it played it with a new twist.

The game goes like this: When the debt ceiling is reached (this year's $798-billion limit will be hit March 9), Congress must raise the debt limit or bring the government to a halt.

But Republicans and a substantial number of Democrats like to vote against an increase in the debt limit to convince voters back home tha they are fiscally conservative. The reslt is that a bill to increase the debt limit is usually defeated.

So the House votes again and again until the limit is raised -- usually just a squeak before the deadline. Last year it took a record seven votes to raise the debt limit.

This year, in deference to the current "blance-the-budget fever," the game was played with a different spin on the ball.

Republicans tried to bring up an amendment that would permit the current debt ceiling to be raised but would prohibit further increases until a bill or resolution establishes methods that would require a balanced budget.

The attempt failed by a vote of 222 to 197.

Then, true to form, the House voted against raising the debt limit by a 222 to 194 vote.

That happened despite the fact that House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. and Majority Leader Jim Wright had appeared before a meeting of freshman Democrats to voice their dedication to a balanced budget, and despite the fact the leadership had set up a task force, headed by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), to line up votes from the classes of '74 and '76.

Republicans had a rhetorical field day.

They alluded to the current move for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, which Rep. Del Latt (R-Ohio) said was "coming on like a fire engine," and encouraged the Democrats to take action now.

Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.) reminded Democrats that "a lot of People got elected on apledge of balancing the budget." Support of the amendment, he declared, would make "honest men" of the Democratic leadership, who he said had promised to vote on a balanced-budget bill before the end of the year.

The bill would increase the debt limit to $836 billion until Sept. 30. Latta said the country was paying $48 billion in interest on the current debt limit and would pay $57 billion on the new bill. That would cost every family of four $842, he said.

"There comes a time to fish or cut bait. The American people are coming to that point," Latta said.

But Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), noting that the House "goes through this charade with increasing frequency," said the House needs to deal "directly" with the issue of fiscal responsibility. He said the House should not attempt to "fool the public" by "pretending that fooling around with the debt limit makes any difference."

Rep. Edward Derwinski (R-Ill.) risked the ire of fellow Republicans by telling them, "We're all spenders. And while I agree with the proposition that most of the evil spenders are on the other side... the intellectually honest position is to support the increase in the debt limit."

But that position will have to wait for another day.