WASHINGTON (AP) _ All of the talk on Capitol Hill was about delaying debate on the year's most crucial legislation so bean counters could figure what the various health plans would cost.

Sure.

It had nothing to do, of course, with the fact that it's August and this is Washington, where the only things that thrive in the summer are mosquitoes, foul air and tourists.

People who live and work in Washington, who beg, borrow and campaign to be in Washington, who think they've arrived when they're in Washington - these people don't want to be in Washington. In August.

But this year they've got to.

Take the fellow who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who's got his own 747 waiting to take him anywhere in the world. He wants to take his family to Martha's Vineyard, where they had such a great time last year eating custom- made mango ice cream and hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

No dice. Bill Clinton promised to stick around until Congress leaves town.

Listen to Vice President Al Gore grumble. ''When the cameras are turned off and the microphones are turned off, you'll find people in the Congress, in the executive branch, in the private sector, working this issue all talking to their families saying, 'We don't know what's going to happen in August.' But we're committed to staying here to get this done.''

Oh, the human tragedy 3/8

''It's been difficult to plan my wedding,'' says Laura Nichols, press aide to Rep. Richard Gephardt whose health bill is in the forefront of debate. ''When you are working 12, 14, 16 hours a day it's tough getting a caterer.'' The nuptials will take place in August, she says bravely.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala had planned to plunge into the wilderness as is her August custom. Not in 1994 while there's lobbying to be done for health reform.

The State Department's Mike Kozak wanted to take a week off to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary but it was interrupted at both ends of the week because he was needed to work on problems in Haiti. No surprise. The same thing happened on his 15th anniversary, except the concern was Panama.

Warren Christopher, the secretary of state, just got back from a routine five-day trip to the Middle East, and he's still planning to take his vacation the last two weeks in August. That business about the best-laid plans ...

This time last year he was soaking up the rays in Santa Barbara when word came that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres urgently wanted a meeting. Peres flew to California and revealed details of the secret negotiations Israel had held with PLO in Norway.

Christopher had his high command stagger vacations. Be comforted by the fact there's one undersecretary of state in Washington at all times.

Washington's summer exodus has a rich history. The British considered Washington so unpleasant in August they burned the place in 1814. Richard Nixon found the town so hot, he resigned in August.

From the time George picked the place, the government has fled the swamp for friendlier climes. Except it's not called a swamp anymore, as The Washington Post's Donnie Radcliffe pointed out recently. Now it's wetlands.

But a swamp by any other name is still a swamp. In August.