WASHINGTON -- The extraordinary three-week shutdown of much of the federal government may amount to little more than an expensive lesson for a new Republican congressional majority still learning the limits of its power.
The partial shutdown mostly ended yesterday as House Republicans who had been trying to force President Clinton to accept their terms on balancing the budget conceded that they had pushed too hard.
They created a situation in which some federal employees were working without pay, others were promised pay for staying home and many of the most taxpayer-sensitive needs were on the verge of being unmet. Republicans were blamed more than the president.
As it turned out, their weapon against Mr. Clinton turned out to be a boomerang.
"Talk about the law of unintended consequences -- this is going farther than any of us ever expected," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a New York Republican.
As the Republicans withdraw and regroup, they say they are more determined than ever to achieve their goal of balancing the budget in seven years. The spending plan embraces the entire GOP effort to reshape the government.
But ultimate GOP success is threatened by widening fissures in their party.
"They are trying to do it alone without any Democratic votes, like Clinton did when he passed his economic plan in 1993 with one-vote landslides in the House and Senate," said Martha Phillips, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an advocacy group promoting an end to deficits. "But they've had internal problems all the way through."
Hard as it was for the Democrats to overcome their party's internal philosophical battles in 1993, they succeeded because the president was eager to sign the legislation.
The new Republican majority is working with smaller margins in the House and the Senate. It is also handicapped by a president who many feel is resisting them at every turn.
Yet even as their need to agree on a strategy for dealing with Mr. Clinton grows, Republicans are bickering more and more openly among themselves. A huge split developed this week when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole declared, "Enough is enough," and broke with House Republicans to push through the Senate a measure that would have reopened the government for 10 days.
"It was a strategic failure that set us back 30 to 60 days," Rep. Mark Newmann, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin, said of Mr. Dole's action.
Mr. Newmann is among the House GOP hard-liners who are willing to starve the government of funds indefinitely in the name of the greater goal -- in their estimation -- of balancing the budget.
Led by such hard-liners, the GOP voted as a block to prevent the Dole measure from even being considered on the House floor.
Even so, many House Republicans said they agreed with the Senate majority leader. His proposal freed them to push for the concession that was ultimately approved yesterday.
"Clinton is like Br'er Rabbit, and we've thrown him in the briar patch," Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican whose district includes thousands of federal workers, said of using the shutdown as a pressure tactic. "We've made us look mean and him just the opposite. It hasn't worked."
Despite all the budget bluster, Congress and the White House have barely begun actual bargaining. They have not yet been horse-trading over the size of tax cuts or how tightly health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid must be squeezed.
So far, the focus has been almost entirely on the 21-day lockout that idled 280,000 employees, cost $40 million a day -- according to the Democrats -- and left a backlog of undone work and unpaid bills.
But if and when the real dealing begins between Mr. Clinton and the GOP congressional leaders, getting either side to yield on issues of principle may be extremely difficult.
"I think this whole shutdown episode shows how naive and inexperienced the Republican majority is," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.
Mr. Cardin predicted that the Republicans' retreat on the shutdown brings the Congress closer to what he believes will be the ultimate result: a bipartisan balanced budget plan developed by moderates of both parties.
However, that probably would require Mr. Clinton and GOP leaders to abandon the most extreme elements in their respective parties, which neither has seemed willing to do.
In fact, many Republicans agree with Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., of Baltimore County, who insists that Mr. Clinton will never agree to a balanced budget plan because the liberals in his party won't let him.
"Both sides are going to have to learn to compromise," said Roger Davidson, a congressional scholar at the University of Maryland. But Mr. Davidson cautioned that the Republicans' reversal should not be interpreted as a defeat -- just a setback in what has been a remarkable effort to reverse 60 years of Democratic social policy.
Republicans of every stripe agreed yesterday that if they had achieved nothing more, they have at least recast the spending debate so that the central issue is how to balance the budget -- not when to do it or whether it needs to be done.
Mr. Clinton said as much yesterday in comments to a gathering (( of senior citizens.
"I gave them my word I would work with them to pass a plan which would bring our federal budget into balance in seven years, according to the estimates of the Congress," the president said of the Republicans. "I gave them my word I would do that. I have been doing that."