When Vice President Gore launched his "reinventing government" project in 1993, he promised billions of dollars in savings. From the start, Gore's claim has been contested and disputed, and yesterday marked the latest round of skirmishing.

The General Accounting Office, in a report focused on case studies of three federal agencies, contends the Gore project double-counted savings, did not tally short-term costs involved in making long-term savings and did not retain enough documents to make a judgment possible on whether some savings were achieved.

The bulk of the GAO's contentions were swiftly rejected by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which calculated the savings estimates for Gore's reinvention program.

Perhaps more importantly, the skirmish seemed to serve as a proxy for an ongoing political fight between the Republican Congress and Gore, who made the reinvention a personal project and is now campaigning for the presidency.

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who released the GAO report, said Gore and his staff "were too quick to take credit for saving" taxpayer dollars. "Instead of reinventing government, it looks like they were reinventing accounting rules," Burton said.

OMB spokeswoman Linda Ricci countered: "If we're talking about credit here, let's look at some of the indisputable facts. The government is today smaller than it has been since John Kennedy was president; procurement reforms are cutting administrative costs; and Medicare fraud and abuse has been reduced substantially."

The GAO reviewed recommendations made by Gore's National Performance Review (now called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government) for cost-cutting changes at the Agriculture Department, NASA and the Energy Department.

In its report, GAO contends that:

* $21.8 billion in claimed savings by Gore's project could not be documented or substantiated. OMB's Ricci said that even though budget worksheets were not always retained from six years ago, OMB officials could substantially replicate the estimated savings based on how the programs work.

* Double-counting led to inflated savings in at least two cases. Ricci acknowledged that a budget examiner had "inadvertently" counted the savings from a reduction in agriculture employees twice, but said an internal review did not find any double-counting of savings in NASA programs, as GAO suspected. In the Agriculture Department case, she said, the double-counting "represents 1 percent of the nearly $55 billion in savings" resulting from cutbacks in federal employment.

* Estimates of savings did not take into account "offsetting costs," such as the expense of giving numerous civil service employees up to $25,000 in cash "buyouts" to voluntarily quit their jobs and related downsizing costs. Ricci disagreed, saying that OMB discounted the estimated savings by $14.6 billion.

Most importantly, GAO contends that OMB analysts did not distinguish between Gore's money-saving recommendations and events elsewhere. Congress, for example, mandated an Agriculture Department reorganization in 1994, about the same time Gore sought staff cuts there. NASA faced congressional budget restrictions, not just Gore's plan for management changes, and the Energy Department savings probably would have happened anyway because of the end of the Cold War, GAO suggested.

"The relationship between the [Gore] recommendations we reviewed and the savings claimed was not clear," GAO said. The report, which was first obtained by the Los Angeles Times, concluded, "There was no way to substantiate the savings claimed."

The dispute is not the first involving Gore's promise to make the government "work better and cost less" through his reinvention project. During the 1996 campaign, budget experts said they doubted Gore would ever be able to prove that he achieved the bulk of his projected savings.

The project has gone through several phases since its start and Gore currently estimates it will save about $137 billion through streamlining of agency procedures, regulations and staff.

"While I wouldn't want to predict anything down to the exact dollar, we have done a careful analysis and we expect at the end of the day that the savings will be comfortably in this range," Ricci said.

CAPTION: Vice President Gore, who launched his "reinventing government" initiative in 1993 and promised huge savings, addresses the Global Forum on Reinventing Government at the State Department in January.