Contrary to a rumor that's racing through the Colorado legislature, the federal government is not about to scrape the gold off the dome of the state capitol here.

But a federal judge says he will call out the marshals and attach some state assets this week unless the legislature agrees to pay a legal bill it has been trying to duck for more than two years.

In a dispute that has reduced the traditional "comity" between state and federal governments to nil, both sides are standing fast.

"We don't want to knuckle under," state Sen. Ralph Cole said.

"The obduracy of state officials cannot overcome the mandate of federal law," U.S. District Court Judge John L. Kane Jr. wrote in his final order, issued last week.

The $283,000 bill is owed to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- an organization that is anathema to many of the conservative Republicans who control the state Senate leadership. To gall the senators further, the ACLU's legal bill represents part of its fee for a lawsuit that has forced the state to spend millions of dollars improving its prisons.

Legislators were angered five years ago when Kane issued a ruling that forced the closure of one prison and significant changes at another.

But anger turned to outrage in 1982 when Kane ruled that ACLU attorneys who brought the prison case were entitled to have their legal fees paid by the state. Kane cited a provision of federal civil rights law requiring losing defendants to pay the plaintiff's legal fees.

Ever since, denouncing the Kane ruling has been a rite of political manhood for certain conservative senators. While the Democratic governor, Democratic state treasurer and Republican-controlled state House of Representatives want to pay the bill and get it over with, the Senate refuses to pass the appropriation.

In addition to their distaste for handing money over to the civil liberties union, the unyielding senate leaders argue that the legal fee is excessive and that any payment would likely be used to finance more lawsuits against the state.

"If that's their fear, it's well-founded," said James Joy of the local ACLU office. "We may well use the legal fee here to support other litigation."

The $282,782.43 in court costs and lawyers' fees that Kane has ordered to be paid immediately is just a down payment on the ACLU's fee request of more than $1 million.

Kane has repeatedly delayed a final payment order. " . . . As a matter of comity, federal courts should not assess fee awards against a state without first giving the state legislature an opportunity to appropriate necessary funds," the judge wrote.

"Comity" is the legal tradition of deference between branches of government.

But when the senators proved unyielding, Kane entered a final order. "Absence of a legislative appropriation . . . will not be considered as an excuse," it says.

Facing that ultimatum, a group of senators proposed a settlement. The ACLU turned them down. "What's to settle?" asked the ACLU's Joy. "We won."

And so on Tuesday, the state of Colorado, like a deadbeat, will presumably face a court order seizing its assets -- presumably money in the state's main bank account here.

"We're going to march down the street to that bank and get our money, Senate or no Senate," Joy said.