This was going to be the year that America's 10 million recreational boaters made their contribution to deficit reduction.

Having dodged the bullet for almost a decade since Reagan administration budget director David A. Stockman first proposed assessing boat owners a Coast Guard user fee, time appeared to be running out for the boaters and their allies on the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Ordered to come up with $222 million this year as their contribution to a $500 billion, five-year deficit-reduction package, Merchant Marine was expected to finally, with great reluctance, go after its vast constituency by imposing a $25 annual fee on boats in navigable waters.

"They're going to rip my heart out," predicted Michael G. Sciulla, lobbyist for BOAT-U.S., an association of 375,000 recreational boaters that has been fighting Coast Guard user fees since 1981.

Sciulla's heart has been saved, by a panel that has turned the annual process of budget reconciliation into an art form.

On Friday, lawmakers on Merchant Marine dodged the $25 fee courtesy of some quick legerdemain engineered by its staff, which had been frantically searching for some area of legislative jurisdiction that would permit the panel to raise money elsewhere.

Finding a footnote in House rules that gives the committee jurisdiction over cargo ship "tonnage taxes," the panel voted to raise the tonnage tax on cargo vessels entering the United States from foreign ports.

Increasing the tax, which hasn't been touched since 1909, raises a hefty $182 million. Merchant Marine found the rest of its assigned tab by allowing the Coast Guard to impose fees for licensing merchant seamen and inspecting vessels and by directing the Environmental Protection Agency to charge $22 million in fees for permits.