WASHINGTON -- To much of the public, the budget impasse resolved last night seemed little more than a petty and partisan ++ power struggle, a study in dueling egos.
But beyond the posturing and rhetoric, the clash that closed parts of the government was the opening salvo in a larger budget war that has finally been joined.
It spotlighted a yearlong ideological tug of war, the likes of which the nation has not witnessed in three decades.
Hanging in the balance of these struggles is no less than the fate of the nation's dominant political figures -- and the direction of the country.
"This is nuclear warfare," says Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government.
"This is a struggle for control of the government of the United States."
As House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of those vying for control, said last week, "This is the moment of choice."
Last night, both the White House and congressional Republicans declared victory by agreeing to a short-term spending bill that will allow hundreds of thousands of government workers to return to work today.
L But both sides recognized that the cease-fire was temporary.
"What we've been going through the last week is kind of like a pickup football game outside the Super Bowl stadium. Now we're going to go in the stadium," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
When congressional Republicans tacked a balanced budget requirement to the temporary spending measure needed to keep the government operating -- the issue that became the key sticking point -- they were trying to put in place the first bold stroke of their sweeping plan to overhaul the federal government.
The total plan, packaged in the budget bill that is on the verge of congressional approval, would reshape the government more dramatically than any legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiatives of 1965.
The package includes efforts to shrink the federal government, give more authority to the states, move people off welfare, reward the middle class with a tax break, and reduce the restraints on businesses and individuals that the GOP says have inhibited economic growth.
Mr. Clinton has said he will veto it, believing that such budgetary changes, in Medicare and Medicaid, for instance, would hurt those most vulnerable and also threaten education, the environment and other programs he views as indispensable.
But the weeklong conflict, which hinged on the issue of balancing the budget in seven years using the accounting procedures of the Congressional Budget Office, drew the line in the sand between the two visions of America.
Balancing the budget in seven years is the framework for the whole "Republican revolution."
The concept is the first tenet of the GOP's "Contract with America." It is the reason many of the 73 Republican House freshmen say they came to Washington.
It remains, for them, nonnegotiable.
President Clinton vetoed the first stopgap spending measure sent to him, saying that, although he too favored a balanced budget, the GOP demands placed on the bill would force spending cuts that were too deep.
Under the agreement reached last night, Mr. Clinton agreed to balancing the budget in seven years, but on the condition that the balanced budget bill would protect Medicare, Medicaid, education, agriculture, defense and other programs, as well as stimulate economic growth.
"We must balance the budget, but we must do it in a way that is good for our economy and maintains our values," said Mr. Clinton at the White House.
"This agreement reflects my principles."
Mr. Gingrich said last week that House and Senate Republicans feel they have "an absolute moral obligation" to produce a balanced budget by 2002, viewing it as an imperative to an economically sound future for their children and grandchildren.
But some, such as Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, believe the Republicans have used the promise of a balanced budget, which has widespread appeal, as a cover for their major scaling-back of government and given it an overly moralistic cast in the process.
"It's a holy war," says Mr. Mann. "Balancing the budget in seven years has taken on a mystical, surreal quality that goes well beyond any basis in economic reality."
While much of the public was outraged by last week's stalemate, seeing it as more government gridlock, more "politics as usual," many political scholars believe the impasse -- and the budget clashes ahead -- was not only an accurate barometer of today's political winds, but inevitable.
"These are not petty games," says Mr. Mann. "These are major differences about the nature and role of government.
"The public elected a Democratic president and now a Republican Congress.
"These are the fruits of the public's decision accurately reflecting the divided sentiment in the electorate."
The heated rhetoric of both sides is a sign that the stakes in the budget battles are extremely high. "What is at stake is the whole reform agenda," said GOP strategist Steven Wagner.
"If Republicans are thwarted, we have to go to the American people and say, 'Congratulations, you voted for change, and after two years, you have the status quo.' "
Voter perceptions, in fact, have been so much on the mind of the major players in the just-resolved budget drama that many see it as the opening act of the 1996 elections.
"The congressional election, not to mention presidential election, will hinge around which of the two paths people want to take," said Republican strategist Linda DiVall, who works for Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a presidential contender.
Mr. Clinton, for his part, seized on the budget crisis, and the spotlight on it, to try to slip out from under the GOP shadow, re-emerge as a leader in sync with America and redefine himself for 1996.
On every occasion last week, he tried to erase the image of himself as too inclined to bend to the prevailing political winds and portray himself instead as a man of strong convictions who is willing to hang tough.
In a speech last week, he evoked Churchillian cadences as he vowed to fight the GOP budget to the end.
"I am fighting it today," he declared. "I will fight it tomorrow. I will fight it next week and next month.
"I will fight it until we get a budget that is fair to all Americans."
Democratic strategist Greg Schneiders believes that Mr. Clinton, shutting down parts of the government last week, borrowed a page from former President Ronald Reagan, who won broad public support by firing striking air traffic controllers who ignored the government's back-to-work order.
"This was his way of doing what Reagan did," says Mr. Schneiders.
"Saying, 'I'm willing to stand up for something and I don't care what the consequences are.' "
For his part, Mr. Gingrich, who has been the big man on the political campus all year, had his reputation as the leader of the "revolution" and his claim to power riding on the outcome of the budget battle.
Last night, he portrayed the agreement as a victory and tried to preserve his reputation and role.
"This is truly one of the historic days in American governmental history," he said.