Washington — As the historic 97th Congress draws to a close, the big story is not what happened. It's what did not.
A year and a half ago this capital city still reeled from a surprise takeover by a breed of conservatives calling themselves the ''New Right.'' In one Senate hearing room, a just-elected Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) of Alabama inaugurated his subcommittee on terrorism before a packed crowd sprinkled with plainclothes police. Critics spoke darkly of the staunchly anticommunist senator bringing back McCarthyism.
At another hearing, biologists and theologians sat in the blare of TV lights telling a panel of senators that human life begins at conception. Sen. Jesse Helms, commander of the conservative troops, and fellow North Carolina Republican, Sen. John P. East, had forged that idea into a ''human life bill'' to reverse the US Supreme Court on abortion.
Conservatives put into gear other measures as well. They proposed a series of bills to strip federal court of authority to rule on issues such as school busing and prayer. Only once in history has Congress taken such drastic action to curb the courts, and that instance involved a relatively minor Civil War issue.
This week, as Congress breaks for the elections, Senator Denton's antiterrorism panel has faded out of the headlines. It did not produce a witch hunt for communists.
Senator Helms's human life bill failed, and a last-minute push for a watered-down proposal on abortion collapsed as well. Supporters of a constitutional amendment on abortion counted their opponents and withdrew it.
Not one ''court stripping'' measure became law. A ban on court-ordered busing for school desegregation passed in the Senate, but it stalled in the House where it never reached a floor vote. On the popular idea of prayer in schools, the Helms effort to overturn the courts by statute found a majority but could not overcome a filibuster from the opposition.
At last throwing in the towel, Senator Helms reasoned that he lost because ''we don't have a conservative US Senate.'' He told reporters, ''At most, I count 35 good, solid conservatives. We need some more horses.''
His ally, Senator East, said that shifting the course of politics is ''like the slow changing of a great oceanliner'' and takes time.
The failure of the conservative ''social agenda'' points to a truism in American politics. As supporters of the failed Equal Rights Amendment recently discovered, it takes a broad consensus to change social policy. And while Senator Helms speaks for a powerful minority, it has become increasingly clear that his views do not reflect such a consensus.
A ''quiet but powerful lobby'' defeated the conservatives, says John Shattuck , who heads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and who maintains that Senator Helms lost because folks on the opposing side woke up.
The clearest example is the abortion dispute. Before the 1980 elections, antiabortion forces had all but monopolized the issue. They rained phone calls on Congress members. If they objected to a member's vote, they went public with advertising campaigns. Their efforts paid off, as they helped knock out some of the Senate's leading liberals.
Shocked into action, the Civil Liberties Union and abortion-rights groups have regrouped since their rout in 1980. They have organized on the grass-roots level, and suddenly the tide of letters to some Capitol Hill offices is turning in their favor. They point to polls showing that a majority supports their pro-choice viewpoints on abortion.
Mr. Shattuck says the ACLU's membership has jumped from 200,000 to 250,000, the biggest leap in the group's 60-year history. The organization has also run a dozen workshops throughout the US to train thousands of lobbyists to fight the Helms social agenda.
Now that the battle has been joined, it is clear that neither side captured all the hearts and minds of America. But moderates and liberals proved that many Americans are on their side, and that may well be enough. Politicians usually shy away from divisive issues.
Paul Weyrich, a leader in New Right politics through his Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, proclaims his disappointment with the past two years. ''What we have is a stalemate, a freeze-frame of what there was when Ronald Reagan came into office.''
The ACLU's Shattuck comes up with a similar assessment of congressional action. ''It's amazing how you can get to the point where just standing still can be characterized as running ahead,'' he says with more than a little irony. However, while citing victories for his side, he points to setbacks within the Reagan administration, especially in civil rights enforcement.
Antiabortion activists and other conservatives found themselves divided on tactics this year. ''If they can get their act together, there will be more action in the next Congress,'' says Shattuck.
Senator Helms has promised that he'll be back with his social agenda. Next time, he hinted, he will push it early in the session. And there will be no more ''Cadillac'' filibusters, in which members are allowed to leave the floor, he said. ''If they have to stand on their feet all night long, it'll get a little old, and we'll see how it'll come out.''