Talking about balancing the federal budget can be a lot more appealing than actually trying to do it.

Invoking Thomas Jefferson, writer H.L. Mencken, economist Milton Friedman, Reagan administration budget director David A. Stockman, the late Senate GOP leader Everett M. Dirksen (Ill.) and the Bible, members of a House Judiciary subcommittee spent more than 90 minutes yesterday grilling Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman about a proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

Meanwhile, around the corner in the Rayburn House Office Building, congressional budget negotiators, who had pushed back yesterday's resumption of deficit-reduction talks by 45 minutes so Darman could testify, postponed the talks again.

And again. And again.

Lawmakers eventually began the session without Darman, who was the administration's prime nego- tiator yesterday because Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and White House Chief of Staff John

H. Sununu were with President Bush at the Houston economic summit.

When Darman finally joined the talks, several lawmakers had to leave for midday appointments. But all the negotiators were able to get together for a longer session in the afternoon that focused on ways to change the budget-writing process.

At the hearing, Darman told lawmakers that the administration backed the proposed amendment -- provided it did not take effect until after the 1992 presidential election -- because the Constitution had failed to protect "the interests of the citizens of the future."

But Democratic lawmakers argued that adoption of the amendment would be meaningless. "Why don't we also pass a constitutional amendment that simply declares that we shall have clean air henceforth, we'll have a drug-free society and that AIDS will no longer be a menace to society?" declared House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.).

Brooks complained that the proposed amendment offered no solutions, only a directive. "It's written in the words of Genesis: 'Let there be a balanced budget,' " he said.

Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) called it "just another gimmick from a group of people who don't have the fortitude to make the tough choices."

The House is to vote on the amendment Tuesday, one day after OMB is to release its re-estimate of the coming fiscal year's deficit. Yesterday, Darman told reporters the new deficit projection would be "a little higher" than May's forecast of $159 billion, not including the cost of bailing out the savings and loan industry. In January, OMB had set the figure at $100.5 billion.

Supporters of the proposed amendment said the current focus on the nation's fiscal woes, and the accompanying political posturing in Congress, could work in their favor. "With all of the tough votes coming on the budget, a lot of members will need to say that they did something positive," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), a main co-sponsor of the amendment.

But Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), the House leadership's chief vote-counter, predicted the proposed amendment would not win the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.

The proposed amendment had been blocked in the House Judiciary Committee, but its backers forced the floor vote over the objections of House Democratic leaders by collecting the signatures of a majority of House members on a petition demanding the vote.

The House last voted on a balanced-budget constitutional amendment in 1982, falling 46 votes shy of the needed two-thirds majority on a 236-to-187 vote in favor of the measure. In 1986, the Senate voted 66 to 34 for a version of the amendment, falling one vote short of the needed margin.

Meanwhile, Darman and GOP lawmakers yesterday said a deficit-cutting agreement could be reached before Congress takes its month-long August recess. "Do we have the potential to pull this together {by then}? Yes," Darman said. "Are we on a path to do that? Yes. How far are we down that path? Formally, we're not very far."

Others doubted that schedule could be met. "I don't think so," said Gray, a Baptist minister. "But the spirit might come and lightning might strike. I don't rule those things out in my other professional life."