Rep. John Spratt's wife grew angry with him. He repeatedly fumbled a simple question in the spate of interviews he's given since becoming the new House Budget Committee chairman: What are his hobbies?

"You better . . . figure out how you're going to answer that question," his wife, Jane, yelled, as the South Carolina Democrat recollected the scolding.

The self-described bookworm has no other hobbies. His idea of fun at the beach is burrowing into the latest 10-year estimates from a Congressional Budget Office report. After a dozen years on the sidelines in the minority, Spratt has been thrust into the role he's longed for, as committee chairman. But now comes the hard part.

Spratt is in charge of drafting a budget plan that will close a deficit of more than $200 billion within five years. And, as Spratt explained, he has to "squirrel away a little money" for up to a dozen key Democratic priorities, including big increases for education and children's health care. And he's not supposed to raise taxes to cover the additional spending and eliminate the deficit.

"We want to do it [eliminate the deficit], and be able to meet our priorities," Spratt said in a recent interview.

Unlike his colleagues, Spratt cut short his congressional recess to return to Washington last week to work on trial runs of various budget proposals. Spratt will unveil his first budget the week of March 12 and submit it for passage by his committee. It's a prospect he's looking forward to with some trepidation: "Beware the ides of March," he warned, half joking.

But Democrats say he's the perfect fit for such a delicate task. A lawyer by training -- Yale Law School -- Spratt, 64, became a small-town banker in South Carolina's northernmost county before winning election to Congress in 1982. A Southern gentleman, Spratt has engendered some of the most loyal staff members on Capitol Hill. Thomas S. Kahn, his committee staff director, has worked for him for 21 years, and a handful of staffers in his personal office have worked with Spratt even longer.

By virtue of his state's prominent presidential primary placement, Spratt and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) are two of the most sought-after endorsements in the nonstop White House race. He's tried to push off the campaigners with a neutrality pledge, but that hasn't stopped the calls. The morning she announced her campaign via a Web video, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) caught a surprised Spratt on the phone.

"I didn't even know she had announced," he said.

Despite the respect Spratt has engendered on both sides of the aisle, Republicans relish the chance to pounce on anything Spratt produces remotely resembling a tax increase to help reduce the deficit. "They'll call it revenue-enhancement measures. We'll call it tax increases," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the former party campaign operative who otherwise praises Spratt for the "certain consistency" in his legislative dealings.

Democrats are adamant that won't happen. "We are not talking about tax increases," Kahn said.

To help with the heavy lifting, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has sat in on meetings with top committee chairmen and leaders of the key coalitions within the Democratic caucus. It's part of an effort to measure which programs are most essential, trying to build consensus in advance and send a warning that some constituencies won't necessarily like what they see in two weeks.

Regardless of the assist from leadership, Spratt said he expects some credit or all of the blame to fall on his shoulders, depending on how things work out.

"I know what my marching orders are," he said.