It started last year as loyal opposition, turned this year into "principled obstructionism" and now, even some of their own wonder if the "principled" part of the obstructionism remains.

Republicans this week rolled over most of the last of a Clinton agenda, scoffing at the notion there would be a price to pay at the polls for stopping or stalling anything incumbent legislators could call accomplishments. Not only are Republicans ignoring last month's rule -- kill it but leave no fingerprints -- they are crowing over the lifeless legislation, arguing no law is better than bad law.

"Defeating this president's health care plan was the most positive thing that this Congress did. I'm proud of {the Republican} role in it," Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) boasted on Sunday. "This is the kind of bill that gives gridlock a good name," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday as he led the successful effort to kill campaign finance reform legislation.

Reform of the Superfund to clean up toxic waste dumps, efforts to reform western land use policies and restrictions on lobbyists all fell. As final proof that almost nothing is sacred, the Republicans seized on a Democratic opening and stalled the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, virtually the only thing everyone agreed free-trade-loving Republicans would vote for this fall.

The Republicans were emboldened and aided by a combination of factors: a weak president, a splintered and undisciplined Democratic Party, legislation that Republicans took little part in drafting and a calculation that making Congress look as bad as it can these final days all help the GOP, according to Republican strategists and leaders. Being tagged a guardian of gridlock is no big political problem in the climate of 1994, they said.

House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who spearheaded much of the obstruction on the House side, said what the GOP is stopping is bad law, and what has changed the past weeks is the once-solid fear that it would be suicidal to kill anything labeled reform.

"The country has gone very sour on Congress," Gingrich said in an interview, "and begining in July, you began to see huge numbers {of voters} on health care that said pass nothing this year before you pass something risky or bad. And suddenly, it became easy to say, 'If we cannot do it right, let's not do it at all.' "

At the same time, he said, Clinton became "astonishingly unpopular and sunk to a level of weakness that is astounding." That weakness meant that his labeling of legislation as reform and good for the country carried little weight and left little fear of opposition in the hearts of Republicans or Democrats.

As if to prove the point, Gingrich boasted, "I invite him to come into any district of the country and campaign against a Republican as a guardian of gridlock." The president, he noted, is "now at 26 reelect in my district," a number he said that is common throughout the South and in many suburban districts.

Clinton, sources said, will make the "guardians of gridlock" argument today at a news conference called to put the White House's spin on the end of Congress's session and launch a month of campaigning.

Clinton advisers insist that Republicans have gone too far and the combination of killing legislation and proposing a Reaganesque platform for the party this fall gives Democrats a stronger argument. George Stephanopoulos, a senior adviser to Clinton, said "in trying to wound the president, the Republicans have ended up wounding themselves."

But a Republican member of Congress said the demise of health care overhaul brought no political consequences for Republicans and "has given us sweeping confidence to oppose what we don't like even if it has the word 'reform' attached to it. People don't buy that it's reform just because the Democrats say it is."

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster whose firm is handling 70 congressional races this fall, said yesterday that disapproval of Congress is nearing 70 percent, an historically high number, and that the number of voters willing to vote against their own incumbent in order to "change Congress" has picked up 16 points since spring. But Democratic incumbents, he said, are at a far greater risk than Republicans because their attachment to an unpopular president is seen as part of the problem in Washington.

Even some advocates of obstructing "bad" Democratic initiatives wondered aloud this week whether the party is going too far. Republican strategist William Kristol, who coined the phrase "principled obstructionism," said that "opposing, even delaying, legislation that is good for the country will give principled obstructionism a bad name. And it may backfire politically" by giving credence to Democratic charges that Republican resistance is politically motivated.

Kristol said even he is surprised at how willing Republicans were to oppose Clinton on major initiatives. He said while health care was a key, the crime bill of August, when Republicans forced compromises by labeling the legislation social pork, showed the political saliency of opposition.

Noting that it was originally thought impossible for a politician to oppose a crime bill in a year that crime is the major national concern, Kristol said the handful of Republicans who did so found "the country was more receptive to a conservative message than even I thought."

Some Republicans don't rule out the pure joy of revenge in explaining GOP motivation. One GOP strategist, unwilling to allow his name to be used, said: "I tell you, I wake up every morning happy. I remember every minute of what George Mitchell and the Democratic leaders did to George Bush for four years. And every time I think we are going too far, I think, hell, no, hit 'em again."