Producing the federal budget is never simple, but this year, there's an extra rub: a battle over the physical production of the document itself.

That responsibility for years has gone to the Government Printing Office, whose 1.5 million-square-foot plant five blocks from the Capitol is the world's largest facility for processing, printing and distributing documents.

But now the White House's Office of Management and Budget is proposing to decentralize and largely privatize the government's printing operations, beginning with President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2004, a four-volume set totaling 3,030 pages.

In an Oct. 29 letter, OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. informed the GPO that the White House was seeking competitive bids for the printing contract, and he invited the GPO to submit its best price. This week, the OMB proudly hailed the result: The GPO offered to do the job for $387,000 if the document is in black and white, or $412,000 if the White House wants its red ink displayed in, say, red ink.

The OMB is still mulling bids from private contractors and says it will announce before Christmas who will print the budget, due Feb. 3. But it appears competition has cut the cost by at least 18 percent from last year, when the GPO charged $505,000 to print a document that had about 100 fewer pages.

"We want competition because it saves the taxpayers money, and this proves it," said OMB spokeswoman Amy Call.

Not so fast, says the GPO. The printing office acknowledges that "we sharpened our pencils and re-engineered our processes to give them a very competitive bid," said spokesman Andrew M. Sherman. But, he added, there are still many reasons why the federal government should turn to the GPO for the printing of official documents.

To begin with, Sherman noted, it is the law. Title 44, the federal statute on printing, requires executive branch agencies to use the GPO, an arm of Congress.

The OMB says the law is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The administration is revising regulations to allow all 130 federal departments and agencies to contract independently with commercial printers, a plan the GPO fears could result in the loss of as much as half its 3,000 employees and two-thirds of its $712 million in annual revenue.

Congress, however, has perennially thwarted such plans. In 1994, Vice President Al Gore proposed much the same thing as part of his Reinventing Government initiative. So did the Reagan White House in 1987. In fact, the dispute over whether it is more or less costly to centralize government printing goes all the way back to the floor debate before Congress established the GPO in 1860.

The White House might have expected to gain the upper hand this year when Bush nominated Bruce R. James, a Republican from Nevada, to head the GPO. As an entrepreneur who ran several printing companies before retiring in 1993, James appeared to be a natural ally in the administration's effort.

But James, 59, who was confirmed by the Senate on Nov. 20 and began work as the nation's public printer last week, has stood up for the GPO.

"It makes a lot of sense from the point of view of saving taxpayers' money to centralize the procurement of government printing," he said in an interview. "I think Mr. Daniels initially didn't understand that the GPO has built over the years probably the most efficient printing procurement operation in the country."

What OMB officials did not seem to realize until recently, James added, was that the GPO already farms out the bulk of the government's printing to the private sector. In its own plant, the GPO prints only the Federal Register, the Congressional Record, blank U.S. passports and a few large or specialized products, such as the budget. It seeks competitive bids from a pool of 16,000 private printers across the country for more than 80 percent of the work it receives from the executive branch.

Angela Styles, the OMB's administrator of procurement policy, said the White House was well aware that the GPO acts as a clearinghouse for competitive bidding. But she said many agencies chafe at the GPO's "severe" fee for that service -- 7 percent of the contract's cost in most cases, and 14 percent if the lead time is less than 10 days.

Sherman said the GPO not only supervises contracts but also distributes documents to federal depositories, ensuring that they are catalogued and made available to the public. If hundreds of government entities were to contract independently, he said, there would be more documents missing from the public record.

Styles said there are already many "fugitive" documents because "agencies are fed up" with the GPO's high prices and cumbersome procedures.

Robert S. Willard, executive director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, an independent board that advises both Congress and the White House, said the argument over printing persists because "the real numbers aren't known."

"Nobody has done a thorough study on this," Willard said. "It's a gut-level reaction that if we went out to commercial printers for bids, we'd get lower prices. But that ignores the fact that the GPO has been going out to bids for a long time, and if instead of one office seeking bids there were hundreds, then commercial printers would have to hire a sales force to look for those contracts, and that would result in higher prices."

James said he has proposed to the OMB that both sides call off the fight.

"I'm not sure that OMB is completely wrong that we could be more efficient," he said. "But instead of blowing up the system we have now, I have proposed that OMB and GPO work together to improve the efficiency of the system we have in place, and especially to focus on the big issue for the future, which is how to publish and retain information electronically."

Both offices, James said, "have spent a lot of time and energy on a 19th century issue when we should be concentrating on a 21st century one."

Public Printer Bruce James says the GPO already farms out the bulk of the government's printing to the private sector.