Washington — The most highly publicized battle of the 1980 congressional elections -- to shove the US Senate politically to the right -- may be won before a single ballot is cast.
During most of the postwar era, through the cold war of the 1950s, the civil rights movement of the '60s, and the Vietnam struggles of the '70s, the Senate has served as a reliable liberal counterbalance to the generally more conservative House of Representatives.
Now right-wing activists are spending an unprecedented $700,000 to defeat five liberal senators in hopes of, as one of their fund-raising letters puts it, "taking over the US Senate for conservatives."
The campaign blitz may be unnecessary. The goal is being achieved, it appears, without it.
Voting trends and the views of Congress-watchers, both on and off Capitol Hill, suggest that the Senate already is becoming markedly more conservative. The House, in fact, today probably ranks as a more liberal institution than the Senate.
* The Senate's annual approval rating by liberals has plummeted since the early 1960s, while its standing among conservatives has climbed.
The chamber's voting record on liberal issues selected by the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) has fallen steadily from 53 percent "favorable" in 1963 to 38 percent last year -- a drop of nearly 30 percent. The House, meanwhile, ran up a score last year (42 percent) that was more liberal than the Senate's for the first time in recent history.
On conservative issues important to the Americans for Constitutional Action, the Senate's rating rose from 36 percent "favorable" to 41 percent. The increase was led, significantly, by the 20 newly elected senators, who collectively scored 53 percent.
The House's conservative ranking remained about the same last year, rising only marginally from 44 percent to 45 percent.
The liberal ADA sees "a continued rightward trend in the Senate" that is not confined to region or party, but "uniformly distributed across geographic boundaries and party lines."
* The Senate, traditionally a big spender in contrast to the more frugal House, in recent years has begun to consistently vote less overall federal spending than the House.
The Senate's budget target for the current fiscal year fell $5 billion below the House's before a compromise was worked out between the two versions. For next year, The senate targeted $18 billion less spending; for the following year , $30 billion less.
* In the not so distant past, the Senate could be depended on to favor "butter" over "guns." It voted to stop funding the Vietnam war nearly two years before the House finally went along.
But in the last few years, the Senate has undone its reputation by nearly always budgeting more money for national defense and less money for domestic social programs than has the House.
For the current fiscal year, as an example, the Senate's version of the federal budget targeted $3.1 billion more spending for defense than did the formerly more hawkish House. And the Senate projected $8.2 billion less outlays for social programs such as education, housing, job training, income security and veterans benefits.
* The rightward shift of the Senate also shows up across a wide range of other issues. For example, it has become conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that in energy legislation the Senate tends to be more sympathetic than the House to the oil industry.