Washington — Quietly but effectively, moderates are making a comeback in Washington.
The evidence is all over town -- in the White House, Congress, and Cabinet offices -- that a pragmatic tempering of the Reagan administration's harder conservative positions is under way.
The moderate vote has been closest in the budget battle.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, moderate GOP leaders such as majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, and Finance Committee chairman Bob Dole (R) of Kansas have put forth the energy and art to craft a compromise budget this session.
In the White House, chief of staff James Baker III, a political tactician for Gerald Ford and George Bush before becoming a Reagan loyalist, patiently kept the structure for budget negotiations going until the practical political trade-offs became clear to both sides. As a result, the President's position softened considerably, and there was movement on the Democrats' side.
In the House, moderate Republicans have joined with like-thinking Democrats to offer a bipartisan budget proposal for fiscal 1983. It would double the defense cut proposed by the Senate-White House version, increase proposed revenue hikes by a third, and leave social security outlays untouched. This plan would be closer to the House Democrats' plan, disclosed by Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma March 10. Budget chairman Jones himself described his own proposal as appealing ''to the broad middle of both parties.''
''A new locus for decisionmaking exists now in the Congress,'' says Rep. Jim R. Leach (R) of Iowa. ''It is a more moderate locus.''
Signs of moderation have been equally evident in other crucial areas. Some observers say the spate of conservative social initiatives recently endorsed by President Reagan -- the school prayer amendment, tuition tax credits, an antibusing signal from the Justice Department -- are timed to offset conservative opposition to the President's nuclear arms control overture to the Soviet Union this past weekend. Many conservatives want the President to hold off such talks or link them to less repressive Soviet behavior.
In his Eureka College speech, the President dropped the harshest tones of his previous Soviet criticism, signaling gains for Cabinet chieftains, such as Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who favor continuing the broad structure of previous arms negotiation and elements of detente.
The general softening of positions, at least at the edges, on economic and international matters is reassuring to Washington. It suggests that the familiar coalitions -- particularly between moderate Republicans and Democrats -- that broke through stalemates in the past are forming again.
Politically, the moderates claim they are not as vulnerable as generally thought.
A Monitor analysis of the House and Senate GOP contenders bears this out. The 30 House Republicans who scored 80 percent or better in the Ripon Society's congressional ratings last year -- in effect the moderate Republican honor roll -- captured on average 65 percent of the vote in 1980 in their districts, compared with Reagan's 48 percent. The GOP Senate moderates up for reelection in November are also among their party's most secure.
Ripon defines moderate Republican principles as cutting government waste, decentralizing government, extending civil rights, a free market economic approach, internationalist foreign policy, and pro-environment values.
The number of Ripon honor role Republicans in the House in 1981 was virtually the same as in 1970, about 30. In the Senate, 13 Republicans scored in the 80 percent range on the society's vote tally, compared with seven in 1970.
The GOP moderates remain a minority, but they are not an endangered species. Of the 30 GOP House members who scored 80 percent or better by Ripon, only one ran poorer than Reagan in his district in 1980. Only 3 won by 55 percent or less of the vote, the traditional measure for a marginal victory.
The difference shown in last year's voting in Congress is that the moderate Republicans drew fewer Democrats to their positions. In 1981, no Democratic senator scored more than 80 percent, whereas in 1970 more than half the 15 Ripon high scorers were Democrats. In the House, the number of Democrats who scored high on the Ripon survey slipped from 28 in 1970 to 13 last year. GOP moderates now hope to restore that coalition.
Congress's attitude as a whole has held fairly consistent. The average Senate Ripon rating was 50 percent in 1970, 57 percent in 1981. The House Ripon average in 1970 was 55 percent and 52 percent in 1981.
''The moderates are not a vulnerable group,'' says Congressman Leach. ''In general, they are very well protected. It's the conservative congressmen who are liable for substantial losses in November. The model for 1982 may be 1974, when out of 45 lost seats there was only one defined moderate who lost.''