Five years after they joined forces to write the budget-balancing bill that bears their names, Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) find little common ground in assessing the most recent results of their labor.

Proud authors to a man, they stoutly defend the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation as an indispensible instrument for enforcing budgetary discipline -- or, as Gramm puts it in a paraphrase of Winston Churchill, the "worst way of doing budgets except for all the other ways we've tried."

And, unlike colleagues who would scrap the law if they could, they do not see it as a straitjacket that has stifled initiative and contributed to the kind of stalemate that shut down the government over the Columbus Day weekend while Congress struggled to produce a budget satisfactory to the White House.

But they vary widely in their views of the measure's success in fulfilling its objectives and split even more over the budget plans that it helped produce this year in the severest test of the law's mettle.

Hollings, the most disappointed of the three, opposed both the budget agreement that was negotiated by White House and congressional leaders and the modified version that ultimately passed after the first plan was rejected by the House. He was even more acerbic about the process that produced the plans.

"This past week is just about the worst government I've ever seen in Washington, which is saying a lot," he said in a speech to the Senate last Monday. "Secret summits, pollster politicians, deceitful claims, dangerous policy, abdicated responsibility -- you name it, we've witnessed it in recent weeks."

Gramm supported the original budget accord but voted against the less specific second plan, charging that Congress was only putting off hard choices in a way that would intensify the difficulties of enacting legislation to implement the budget before Congress adjourns later this month. He also worried that, in its vagueness, the second plan would open the door to an "all-out assault {to increase} income tax rates," an approach he ardently opposes.

"We bought two days of relief for a month of misery," he said.

Rudman supported both plans, viewing them as the products of the very kind of consensus-by-shotgun that the law sought to achieve in holding out the threat of automatic across-the-board spending cuts if Congress fails to meet deficit targets -- making inaction more painful than action.

"The law only forces solutions -- not necessarily the right solutions," said Rudman. "There's a big difference."

In assessing the law's success or lack of it, the three lawmakers harken back to the fiscal crises of 1985 that brought them together behind an unprecedented approach that even Rudman characterized at the time as a "bad idea whose time has come."

The deficit was hovering around $200 billion, which seemed extraordinarily high at the time, and a Senate drive to pass a big, long-term deficit-reduction plan ran afoul of an unholy alliance between President Ronald Reagan and House Democrats, who together balked at proposed Social Security cutbacks.

Despairing over prospects for action without use of outside force, freshmen Republicans Gramm and Rudman and the more senior Hollings, a Democratic maverick, moved separately toward the same solution, eventually uniting behind the same bill. Colleagues fumed that it was an unconstitutional abdication of congressional responsibility but, in a tacit acknowledgment of impotence, passed it swiftly and overwhelmingly.

The legislation set targets anticipating annual deficit reductions of $36 billion for five years, resulting in a balanced budget by fiscal 1991.

To assure compliance, rules were changed to make it easier to derail budget-busting bills. Even more important, the "dread sequester" was created, by which spending would be cut across the board by an amount necessary to achieve the target if Congress failed to do so on its own.

"We had reached the point in divided government {a Republican White House and Democratic Congress} where you have to have some mechanism out there to force it to get its act together," said Rudman. "It's a monster looming at the edge of the woods, and if you get too close, it will bite you." More than anything else, it is this -- the monster -- that forces consensus and action, Rudman contended.

Gramm puts as much emphasis on less dramatic rules changes, including a requirement for 60 votes to proceed with bills that violate budget ceilings. During an interview Wednesday, he noted that only a couple of hours earlier the Senate, employing the 60-vote rule, sidelined a bill that would have added about $170 billion to the deficit over the next five years. This would have had the effect of negating about one-third of the five-year, $500 billion deficit reduction that Congress hopes to achieve in this year's budget.

Measured by the goal of a balanced budget by fiscal 1991, which began Oct. 1, even Gramm, its most ardent booster, concedes the law has failed in its key objective. Without the spending cuts and tax increases now under consideration, the latest deficit estimate for the year is nearly $300 billion.

But Gramm and Rudman regard the law as a success, nonetheless. Both cite figures showing that federal spending is growing at half the rate it was before 1985 and that government spending as a percentage of the gross national product, the total cost of the nation's output of goods and services, has been on the decline since then. Both attribute these developments to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings.

"If you define success by whether we're better off with it than without it, whether deficits are smaller with it than without it, whether government relative to the private sector is smaller with it than without it, I think it's a resounding success," said Gramm.

While contending that the law has imposed some fiscal discipline that was not there before its enactment, Hollings contends bitterly that the law has been subverted by "lies, deceit . . . sleight of hand, changing numbers, changing targets."

Targets are pushed back when they cannot be met, he said, and the true size of the deficit is masked by huge Social Security surpluses and by the exclusion of such big-ticket items as future costs of the savings and loan bailout and Persian Gulf military operation. Moreover, the administration and Congress are still using over-optimistic economic assumptions in their deficit calculations, he contended, arguing it will take $1 trillion in reductions, twice the $500 billion that is assumed in the current budget plan, to achieve a balanced budget.

Instead of the plan that Congress is scrambling to complete, Hollings has proposed an across-the-board spending freeze, along with a lower tax rate on capital gains and an increase in income taxes for the wealthy, a combination opposed by Gramm and Rudman. For the longer term, Hollings advocates a value-added tax, a kind of national sales tax imposed at each stage of production.

"There's nothing wrong with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings if we carried out the intent of the law," said Hollings. "There's nothing wrong with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings if we didn't lie about it."

What if Gramm-Rudman-Hollings produces total gridlock instead of accommodation when time finally runs out on this year's budget exercise? Or another ducking of the problem?

"This will be the real test," said Rudman. "If we fail to come close to the numbers {spelled out in the budget plan}, then I'll have some serious doubts," he added.