Washington — After four months of playing second fiddle as President Reagan danced in the public spotlight, Congress is beginning to strike up a new tune -- at last asserting its own character, interests, and agenda.
It may be too early to say the White House honey moon has ended on Capitol Hill. Mr. Reagan's goodwill persists and his legislative liaison staff is winning high marks for professionalism.
But the Senate's rebuff of the President on his social security revisions (by a 96-to-0 vote that left no margin for doubt) and the House's hold on his tax plan show a Congress beginning to find itself.
The White House is sensitive to the stirrings of Congress that could portend a summer of deliberations and delay.Chief of staff James Baker III warns that failure to reach a pact with the House of Representatives on the tax plan within a week or two could push the issue back to late September or October.
In the Senate, the searching scrutiny of Reagan's human rights appointee, Ernest W. Lefever, is a sign the entire Reagan foreign policy will be examined in detail as it unfolds. The White House has yet to draft its foreign policy grand design. Initiatives so far -- the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia, the El Salvador warnings --have seemed patchy. And a first major presidential foreign policy speech is likely a month off, White House sources say.
On social issues, Congress is moving ahead with inquiries into abortion, despite a pact with Republican leaders to postpone such controversy until next year.
The new Congress is remarkably young in experience, particularly, on the Republican side.
"A majority of Congress [members] have served only under Jimmy Carter or a few months of Ronald Reagan in the White House," observes Norman Ornstein, co-editor of "The New Congress," a study published this week by the American Enterprise Institute. "This is a dramatic change from the past. Back in the ' 50s and '60s no more than a third of the members would have served under six years."
At the senior level, only 10 percent of the new Congress have served 20 years or more. "It's a very junior place," Mr. Ornstein says. "It suggests a cantankerous Congress, with few members around who can remember real harmony between a president and the Hill."
"You have now in Washington a number of very ambitious young congressmen, many just at the beginnings of their political careers," Ornstein says. "They want to make a name for themselves quickly and get ahead."
More Republicans than Democrats are junior. Two-thirds of the Republicans in both Houses were elected in 1976 or later, compared with less than half the Democrats.
The Republicans also tend to be more ideological. Conservatives in both parties who joined President Reagan for his budget slashing are weighing whether to leave him on the tax and budget-deficit issues. "A hallmark of members of Congress is their desire to be consistent," Ornstein says. "These conservatives have vowed in their districts they would never vote for a budget with a deficit."
So far, the new Congress has shown little sign of yielding the powers it voted for itself in reaction to the imperious Nixon and Johnson presidential reigns.
The trend in Congress continues, even with conservative GOP rule in the Senate, toward spreading power. "You would have expected to see a movement in the other direction, to pull things back, recentralize, have more of a hierarchical structure, under the Republicans," says Ornstein. "Instead, every member is given a generally free hand to create his own agenda and do what he or she wants."
Another unique feature of the new Congress, with implications for the White House, is that it is the first split-party control on Capitol Hill in 50 years -- since 1931-1932.
There is a natural degree of rivalry between the two houses, even when one party controls them both. "Republican leaders in the House are likely to differ more and more from Republican leaders in the Senate," Ornstein says.
The battleground for policy in Washington is apt to be in the trenches of the conference committees, when the two houses attempt to resolve budget differences this summer.
President Reagan is about to head into the growing work curve of Congress, too.
Congress may have expended six-tenths of its energy in grappling with broad policy issues like the budget. But in terms of actual workload, less than a 10 th has been done.
On the budget alone, Congress will have to change the substance of legislation, not just the baseline dollar amounts.
"They're not up to doing that job quickly," Ornstein says. "Some members don't want to do it -- notably the Labor and Education Sub-committee of the House."
How to cut food stamp spending, for example, could prove tricky. Just putting a cap on spending could mean the program would run out of money a few months before the end of the fiscal year. Cuts in eligibility could affect other programs.
"In the past, it's been easier for Congress to spend the money than to redraw the legislation," Ornstein says. "Next year, when hastily redrawn programs must be reviewed, Congress will have to look again at the legislation and they may well decide to come up with more money after all."
The new Congress, while jumping on the budget-cutting bandwagon, shows no interest in trimming its own bureaucracy.
"All this talk about the new Republican Senate cutting back dramatically on staff -- it hasn't happened," Ornstein observes. "These junior senators have big staffs.
"What it means for the President is he faces 535 entrepreneurs on the Hill who have their own agendas. Most of them have forums to get attention, to take their own set of priorities and jawbone the President."
As the Senate's desertion on social security revisions showed, Reagan may be facing an independent Congress whose members are more intent on their own survival than o n cooperation with the White House.