Washington — Congress arrives back in town next week for a lame-duck session that few of its members wanted. But as the session nears, a spirit of cooperation is settling on Capitol Hill that could set the tone not only for the Congress that's leaving Washington, but for the incoming one as well.
While the election leaves the capital more divided than ever, with Democrats firmly entrenched in the House and the Republicans still in control in the Senate, leaders in both houses are taking tentative steps toward each other.
In the most recent sign of the bipartisan mood, Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee walked over to the House side this week to talk with Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts about fashioning a jobs bill. Afterward, participants on both sides said the meeting went well.
A Republican aide called it ''one of the best the Speaker and Senator Baker ever had.'' He added, ''I sense there is a lot of effort now to avoid confrontation.''
The joint meeting, followed one day later by an endorsement from President Reagan of a 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax for a highways, bridges, and urban transit repair program, virtually ensures that Congress will enact a jobs bill during the lame-duck session.
Republicans, who saw their ranks thinned during the elections because of unemployment, came out of the campaign ready to join with Democrats on jobs. Democrats will almost certainly follow up with more jobs and housing bills than GOP members will accept. But working together will hurry action on a moderate proposal for 300,000 highway jobs.
The bipartisanship appears to go beyond jobs into social security, an area where Republicans are still feeling the sting of Democratic campaign charges that the GOP would cut benefits.
Earlier this month Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois sent an olive branch in the form of a letter to members of his House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over social security. Calling for changes in both taxes and benefits, he said the system needs reform by next July 1.
Although only a small step, the Rostenkowski message was warmly greeted on the Senate Republican side.
An aide to Speaker O'Neill predicts that Democrats and Republicans will reach an accord on social security. ''A deal will be struck before Christmas unless the Republicans hold out for a long-term solution,'' he says. ''I think the report [of the National Commission on Social Security Reform] will come out and be ratified by both parties.''
And the Senate leadership aide who sat in on the O'Neill-Baker session noted that the Speaker called for completing social security action by Easter.
Even the controversy over the MX missile, which will likely heat up during the lame-duck Congress, appears bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans are on each side of the issue. And although Democrats lean more toward trimming defense, they have some top Republicans with them.
''I'm not going to vote against the MX, B-1 [bomber], or an [aircraft] carrier,'' says Rep. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. ''But there is a chance one or more may not be funded at the level anticipated.''
Recent cooperation between the two parties has been noticeable, especially coming so soon after a national campaign. But the cooperation is not new. It began earlier this year when the so-called ''Gang of 17,'' members from both parties and houses, worked secretly on a budget compromise.
Since then, Democrats and Republican moderates joined hands to pass a huge tax increase in the biggest triumph for bipartisan action in the 97th Congress.
''Sometimes you can see and feel the harmony,'' says a Republican legislative aide. ''It's been a long time since we had that spirit of 'let's get things done,' '' he adds, but he says he sees evidence of it now.
The first test of that spirit will come in the three-week session which opens Monday and is expected to end Dec. 15, or 17 at the latest. Besides the jobs bill, Congress must pass legislation to continue funding for the US agencies that are now operating under a stopgap resolution. Although President Reagan called the lame-duck session expressly to complete budget work, that work will almost certainly be left undone. Instead, Congress will pass a new stopgap measure to keep the government in business until next year.