Washington — Shortly before Christmas last year, the US Senate marked the season by meeting in round-the-clock sessions. Good natures wore thin as one determined member, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, fought a last-ditch stand against the 5-cent-a-gallon gasoline-tax increase. Finally he gave way, and the bill passed, but not before touching off calls for changing the rules of the US Senate.
Such calls for more order in the Senate have been amply answered by a Senate study group headed by former Sens. James B. Pearson (R) of Kansas and Abraham A. Ribicoff (D) of Connecticut. Set up nearly a year ago by the Senate leadership, the group recently has released a draft proposal that would attempt to restore the ''world's greatest deliberative body'' to its former glory.
The proposals, probably the most drastic changes ever recommended by a Senate reform group, call not only for curbing delay tactics on the Senate floor, but also for setting a tight agenda for the year, reducing the number of committees, and all but eliminating subcommittees.
While today a Senate debate often means one or two senators talking to an almost-empty chamber, the report seeks to bring back the oratory of the Senate's illustrious past. Not only would more members be required to be present, but they would be forced to be spontaneous. Reading an entire speech would be forbidden.
The result would be a Senate very different from the freewheeling upper chamber with unlimited debate that exists today. ''No question about it,'' says Secretary of the Senate William F. Hildenbrand. ''You would have a totally regulated environment.''
''All the recommendations are within the tradition of the Senate,'' says a Senate Rules Committee staff member who helped write the report, adding that the Senate was more structured in the past than it is now.
Despite a polite reception from Senate leadership, the reforms will have a rocky road. As minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia commented this week, ''Changing the rules is next to the most difficult thing on Earth.''
But the study group's report, slated for a Senate hearing May 9, is raising issues that have been rankling senators for years, especially the power that Senate procedures give to a single member.
During the gasoline-tax debate, Senator Helms defended that power. ''One senator - I do not recall who it was - professed to state that the rules of the Senate were never intended to allow two or three or four senators to hold up legislation in the Senate,'' he told his colleagues. ''I say, senator, you are dead wrong.'' Helms added, ''This is the only tribunal in the world originally designed to protect the rights of the tiniest of minorities.''
Helms has skillfully used the Senate rules to tie up the Senate floor for debate on social issues such as antiabortion measures, but he is not alone in his technique. Liberals have employed the relatively lenient Senate rules to slow down antibusing and natural gas decontrol legislation. Often these efforts continue even after the Senate has voted cloture, which, in theory, should limit debate.
However, in the past decade senators have used a loophole in the rules. After cloture is invoked on a bill, its opponents begin filing amendments, sometimes by the hundreds, to delay final passage. ''Now the filibuster really seems to start after cloture,'' says a senior Senate rules staffer.
The Pearson-Ribicoff study calls for limiting each senator to two amendments after cloture is invoked.
Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute who has worked for two Senate reform panels in 1976 and 1977, calls the post-cloture rule among the ''few sensible things'' in the report. He also applauds proposals to keep unrelated amendments off appropriations bills and to permit televising of Senate debates of major issues.
''But most of it is not terribly thought-out or sensible,'' says Mr. Ornstein , who asserts that some of the recommendations in the report have already been rejected. Members would find new loopholes in the new rules, he maintains. On the issue of establishing more structure in the Senate, he says, ''Do you want to change the Senate to be just like the House? I'm not sure you want to.''