Washington — In the House of Representatives, where it often takes decades to make the slightest ripple, Rep. William E. Gray III has made a big splash. The new chairman of the House Budget Committee has accomplished in a few months what no one in four years has done on the budget. The liberal Democrat from Philadelphia united his party, including ``boll weevil'' conservatives, in almost blissful harmony.
With the overwhelming passage last week of the House version of the federal budget, Representative Gray's approval rating among colleagues has soared off the charts.
``I think he was terrific,'' exuded House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts.
The kudos came from the other side of the aisle, too. ``He's done a magnificent job of uniting his own party,'' said Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, a Budget Committee member, congratulating Gray for doing ``what was almost impossible.''
One key to Gray's success was timing. He took over the budget panel just as President Reagan's hold over budget matters slipped and as the Reagan push for defense increases collided with reports of military contract scandals and the Pentagon's $7,000 coffeemakers.
Gray also had the luxury to work quietly behind closed doors while the GOP Senate bickered long and publicly over the budget. ``The more the Senate flailed, the more time we had,'' said a House Democratic staff member who sat in on those private sessions.
Under these favorable conditions, Gray's leadership not only pleased Democrats but earned the good will of Republicans.
After the vote, Gray and the ranking Republican on his committee, Rep. Delbert Latta of Ohio, appeared together to talk to reporters. It was the first such joint appearance after a budget vote since the Reagan administration began.
The budget chairman is accustomed to dealing with conciliation. A Baptist minister, he preaches weekly sermons at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
In Washington he wins praise for his willingness to listen. ``He solicited more input from Democrats and Republicans,'' said Rep. Martin Frost (D) of Texas, when comparing Gray with his predecessor, Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma.
``Bill asked for and appeared to take into consideration'' all views, said Representative Frost, a member of the Budget Committee. Nonetheless, ``Bill knew where he was going,'' said Frost. ``He was gently steering in that direction.''
Gray's patience extended to giving Representative Kemp time to air his supply-side theories about economic growth, although those theories seemed removed from the actual writing of the budget.
Early this year Gray said in an interview that members of Congress ``have seen how Bill Gray works. He's fair.''
``No chair dominates the members of the committee to the point that his personal will and philosophy become incarnate in the legislative process,'' said Gray, who uses the sex-neutral title ``chair.''
For weeks before the committee acted, he refused to be pinned down on the budget specifics. His only promise was to cut the deficit and to do it ``with compassion.'' That approach gave members from all philosophies a chance to make their cases. In the 11th hour of writing the budget, his committee closed its doors and came close to working out a bipartisan plan.
``We almost had agreement,'' Mr. Latta, the ranking GOP member, said later. He complimented Gray for his openness compared with past years, when the Democratic chairman ``would bring out a proposal and say, `This is it.' ''
The inclusive attitude helped secure the loyalty of conservative Democrats, who in 1981 gave the Republicans enough votes for a major Reagan budget victory in the Democratic House.
Gray, the urban liberal, had won his chairmanship partly with the help of Southern conservatives. When it came to writing a 1986 budget, many of the ``boll weevils'' had decided to work within their party. The result last Thursday was a 258-to-170 vote for the Gray budget, which attracted 24 Republican votes. Only 15 Democrats voted against it, and of those only six were Southerners.