The more they twist and turn and struggle to find an easy way out of a mess fraught with political peril, the more deeply they seem to become entangled.
By yesterday, their options for making the budget pieces fit seemed to come down to denying billions of dollars to schools, farmers or the Pentagon -- or borrowing from Social Security. Sacred cows all.
"It's so frustrating," said Rep. John Edward Porter, an Illinois Republican. "We've had to postpone action on my bill twice already."
Porter chairs an appropriations subcommittee that will try today to fit $88 billion worth of programs offered by the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services into a $73 billion package.
The leadership's strategy is to use a variety of gimmicks, such as delaying $15 billion in education spending for a year, withholding about $4 billion in welfare payments to the states, and declaring fuel assistance for the elderly poor "emergency spending" and thus exempt from budget ceilings.
"If I had my way, we would do this straightforwardly, openly and honestly," Porter said. "But that's not what's going to happen."
The top two Democratic congressional leaders could not suppress their grins yesterday.
This doesn't even qualify as a do-nothing Congress, according to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, who have lain in wait all year to level that charge. It's a "do-less-than-nothing Congress," Daschle said.
To be sure, Democrats have contributed mightily to limiting the accomplishments of this Congress, particularly in the Senate.
At the moment, for example, they are filibustering the Republicans' attempt to pass a bankruptcy reform bill because the Republicans won't attach unrelated amendments, including a higher minimum wage and gun controls.
What's more, Republicans argue that President Clinton's proposed budget was no model of fiscal integrity.
He used some of the same gimmicks the Republicans are now contemplating -- such as not deducting some of next year's spending until the following fiscal year. The president also included revenue-raisers, such as a cigarette-tax increase, that had little chance of passing.
But Clinton doesn't have to pass a budget. The Republican-led Congress does -- or else take the blame for shutting down the government, as it did in 1995.
Republican leaders have formally given up the charade that they could avoid violating the spending caps set in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.
"In reality, those caps are not going to be met," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last week.
The new Republican Maginot Line has been drawn at the Social Security surplus. All their contortions now are aimed at avoiding use of that money -- or at least forcing Clinton to turn there first. They have come up with plans aplenty to achieve this:
Send Porter's bill to the White House, $15 billion shy on education funds, and make Clinton choose between schools and Social Security. But that tactic allows the Democrats to charge that the Republicans are enemies of both programs.
Eliminate State Department funds and foreign aid, forcing Clinton to choose between Social Security and foreign aid, which is not generally popular with the public.
That gambit raised the question of the $3 billion a year for Israel. Would the Republicans knock that out, offending an influential and politically generous lobby? Or would they leave only the Israel money in, offending everyone else?
Rush through a farm spending bill, including nearly $8 billion in emergency aid to farmers hurt by this year's drought and hurricanes and by the drop in crop prices caused by the collapse of the Asian market.
The goal was to get that farm bill to Clinton in time for him to sign it before the fiscal year ends Oct. 1. The Republicans calculated that about $4.5 billion of the total could be counted as "emergency" spending in the current fiscal year.
That $4.5 billion would also come from the Social Security trust fund, Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, acknowledged. But Congress has been borrowing from the Social Security trust fund every year for three decades. The promises the president and Republican leaders have made about not touching a dime of the Social Security surplus for other purposes apparently apply only to future budgets.
The farm aid option is being threatened by a dispute over milk-price policy that has held up the bill.
Slow the payment of tax credits to the working poor, so that they would receive monthly installments rather than a lump sum. A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert contended that no one would be hurt by that proposal.
Even so, the idea died after Democrats said it looked Scrooge-like alongside the generous tax breaks for the rich provided in the Republicans' $792 billion tax-cut bill.
Hastert has decided to seek a three-week extension of the Oct. 1 deadline for finishing the budget work. Stay tuned.