Washington — The 98th Congress, struggling to make its final and somewhat clumsy departure from the capital this week, will win few accolades for bold initiatives. The legislature that arrived in January 1983 in the depths of an economic recession leaves behind a record more notable for modest changes and revisions.
As the session wound down amid bickering over money for weapons, Central America, and water projects, the Congress still had before it landmark immigration reform that would rewrite immigration laws for the first time in 30 years. A bill with more foes and controversies than almost any other, the immigration proposal would be a risky move in an election year.
But for the most part, caution has been the byword of the legislature in virtually every area. After the rapid-fire approval during the 97th Congress of the so-called Reagan revolution of tax cuts and budget reductions, the 98th settled into a holding pattern for the second half of the Reagan term.
The Democratic House leaders, undercut by members of their own party who sided with Reagan during his first few months in office, regained the upper hand and 26 seats in the 1982 elections. But the fortified Democrats could not win passage of laws to reverse the Reagan revolution because the Republicans kept a firm grip on the Senate.
Capitol Hill saw for most of the two years a deadlock on many issues, compromise when absolutely necessary as in social security reform, and some of the noisiest partisan fireworks in years.
From the standpoint of the House Democratic leaders, the 98th Congress has been mildly successful, if only for tempering the Reagan economic program. ''We haven't gone backward like we did the first two years'' of the Reagan administration, says House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas. ''We've stood still.''
Representative Wright credits the House Democrats for braking the ''headlong race'' of the Reagan policies.
''We've forced Reagan to back off drastic benefits cuts'' in medicare and programs for the poor, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. told reporters last week. The Massachusetts Democrat listed as accomplishments restraining the growth in the defense costs and challenging the US involvement in Central America.
But several other House efforts, including a cap on the Reagan tax cuts, a civil rights bill, and a revision of the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program, failed to win Senate passage and seemed to point to a stalemate.
''We've proven our points,'' proclaimed Speaker O'Neill. The statement epitomized the political atmosphere as Congress finished its work and prepared to go on the campaign trail.
Other lawmakers are less satisfied with the results of the 98th Congress. ''It was both a political and substantive standoff,'' says Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California. ''In the partisan battles, we really failed to deal with most of the critical issues that face this country.'' He listed reducing the federal deficit and the lack of consensus in foreign policy as two of those issues.
Conservative Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois calls the House ''the Rose Bowl of partisanship.'' The Reagan revolution has ''touched so many raw nerves'' among Democratic leaders, according to Mr. Hyde, because the President ''waves every conservative red flag'' from opposition to abortion to tuition tax credits and because he is ''an effective adversary.''
Such deep partisan divisions surfaced last May, when Speaker O'Neill became the first speaker in modern times to be rebuked by the presiding officer for personally criticizing a member on the House floor.
The object of his attack, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, had been leading a group of Republican Young Turks who lambasted the record of individual Democrats before House TV cameras almost daily.
Since then, tempers have subsided, but the partisan mood remains.
In the less confrontational Senate, meanwhile, the feuds were usually more private and as likely to be between Senate Republicans and the White House as between the parties. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, announced he would retire, and, perhaps partly as a result, he had a fair share of problems getting cooperation from his own side during the 98th Congress.
''Individual senators begin to look to our races,'' says Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who is among those up for reelection. The Kansas Republican concludes of the second Congress of the Reagan term, ''It wasn't quite as productive'' as the first, although she credits it with tackling social security reform.
For the most part, she says, ''It's been more of a holding period'' which she says is typical of the latter part of a presidential term.
Among the major areas the Congress confronted, or in some cases avoided, during the past two years:
Social security bailout. On almost every priority list, shoring up the nation's pension program rated the top spot. All sides moved swiftly to resolve the problem, and by January of 1983 a commission, including some members of Congress, had found a compromise to raise social security taxes and also gradually increase the retirement age from 65 to 67. Congress passed the compromise.
Deficits. With the annual shortfall of the federal budget near $200 billion, Congress provided less action than talk. It passed a ''downpayment'' of tax increases and spending cuts that were estimated to reduce the defict by $63 billion over three years.
Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, but the measure failed to win passage.
Defense and arms control. The Reagan administration continued to push for increasing spending for national defense, but both Houses applied the brakes. While the President sought a 14 percent after-inflation increase for fiscal 1985 , Congress would grant only a 5 percent hike.
Congress moved against the controversial MX missile, but not very decisively. The two houses agreed to delay the final decision on the 10-warhead nuclear missile until early next year.
Perhaps the most publicized military development was the revelation of new cases of waste and fraud in defense contracting. Congressional committee hearings spotlighted a $436 hammer purchased by the Navy, a $36.77 machine screw , and three plastic caps for stool legs for which the government was billed $3, 136.61.
In arms control, the House passed a nuclear weapons freeze resolution, but the Senate rejected it.
Central America. Although traditionally both parties back the president in international matters, that bipartisanship began to fall apart over US involvement in Central America, especially after the Central Intelligence Agency took part in mining the harbors of Nicaragua. The Democratic House opposed sending any aid to rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua. But both parties and houses came together to support a massive increase in aid for the elected government of El Salvador, where lefists are fighting a guerrilla war.
Religion. The Senate rejected a constitutional amendment to provide for prayer in public schools, but Congress passed a bill permitting student religious groups the use of school facilities. A Reagan administration proposal to grant tax credits for tuition to parents whose children attend private or religious schools hit a brick wall in Congress.
Civil Rights. Congress voted a holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. But it failed to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1984, which would forbid recipients of federal aid from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, age, or handicap. The bill was in response to a Supreme Court ruling which narrows antidiscrimination laws.
Women made gains by passage of a new pension equity law that ensures improved pension coverage and by a new child-support enforcement act aimed at collecting payments from delinquent parents, most of whom are fathers. The Equal Rights Amendment and a proposed unisex insurance plan were both killed in the House.
Abortion. A proposed constitutional amendment to repeal abortion rights won only 49 of 100 votes in the Senate.
The 98th Congress has left a number of items for the 99th to deal with when it comes to town early next year. They include the federal deficit, medicare financing problems, a long overdue rewrite of the Clean Air Act, and natural gas deregulation.