Washington — Democrats and Republicans in Congress are maneuvering for position to begin the election campaign like sailboats vying for the best wind at the start of a regatta.
So far the GOP has caught the strong wind, with a popular president and a recovering economy. Democrats have taken a more difficult tack, opposition to the United States policy in Lebanon and the Reagan budget deficits. And already they are having trouble keeping their sails trim, especially on Lebanon.
Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts had vowed to complete action this week on a Democratic resolution seeking ''prompt and orderly'' withdrawal of American troops from Beirut. The speeded-up vote would have offered a clear political statement for his party.
But the Democratic-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee has delayed approval of the resolution, putting off a full-House vote until Congress returns from a recess late this month. Committee member Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D) of New York is leading an effort to tone down the anti-Reagan language.
The resignation of the Lebanese Cabinet of Sunni Moslem Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan could bolster opponents of the Reagan policy on Capitol Hill. ''It fits in with the rationale on the Speaker's part for changing his position,'' said O'Neill aide Kirk L. O'Donnell on Sunday. Speaker O'Neill, once a supporter of keeping Americans in the peacekeeping forces in Beirut, has recently become the most vigorous opponent.
''We were told (the Lebanese leaders) were moving toward broadening participation'' to all sects in the country, said Mr. O'Donnell. The prime minister's quitting is further evidence that the promise has not been fulfilled, he said.
(Appearing on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' Sunday, Vice-President George Bush said he saw ''no reason to be overly pessimistic'' over the upheaval in the Lebanese government. Mr. Bush expressed hope that a more broadly based government would emerge to include the various factions in Lebanon.
(Bush reiterated the administration's determination not to ''precipitately withdraw'' the US Marines from the peacekeeping force in Beirut, but to allow them to stay until conditions for ensuring Lebanon's stability are met.)
The Speaker's position on the American troops is ''unequivocal,'' said O'Donnell - ''that is, get them out.''
Although the message is simple and reflects a deep feeling in the public and among some Republicans as well, the Democrats continue to have trouble taking full advantage of the issue.
Congress often becomes timid when it comes to foreign policy. Presidents nearly always take the lead and the responsibility. Even as the Democratic caucus fashioned its resolution for removing the troops, it included no deadline for the President.
The resolution's aim is to ''draw the line in the dirt'' between the Reagan administration and the Democrats, says Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, who helped passed the statement in the Democratic caucus. ''I think a specific cutoff date has problems,'' he says, because the groups fighting over Lebanon ''would start hunkering down,'' awaiting the date the Americans leave.
Another reason for caution is that any Middle East question involves possible ripple effects on Israel. Although the pro-Israel lobby has kept a low profile on the subject of US troops in Lebanon, it supports the Reagan administration policy.
One pro-Israel source explained, ''The Marines are not there to provide security for Israel,'' but a failure in Lebanon ''could be a blow to (US) interests and indirectly to Israel.''
Concern about Israel played a role in slowing down the Foreign Affairs Committee action, say some on Capitol Hill.
''I think it's a consideration in the minds of a lot of people,'' says an aide to Mr. Solarz. The spokesman stressed, however, that Solarz, a strong Israel backer, favors withdrawing the forces and merely wants the resolution to be ''more balanced'' and less partisan.
''You get a big charge after the President,'' but then the Democrats ''say, 'Wait a minute,' and take two steps back,'' observes an aide to Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Democrats are also trying to make headway by flaying the Reagan administration for the biggest federal deficits in history.
Debate over that issue has turned into an auction in which President Reagan opened the bidding by calling for a bipartisan group to propose $100 billion in reductions over three years. House Democrats came back with an offer to cut deficits by $200 billion.
Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia has written off the bipartisan panel, which is expected to begin meeting this week, as ''a sideshow.''
It is unclear if the sideshow will lead the way for serious budget changes, and it is equally uncertain if Democrats will be able to harness the deficit issue in election campaigns. ''As long as the economy is going well, it's hard to focus on it,'' says Aspin. ''It's not an issue for Democrats.''