Washington — The United States Senate, moving with unusualspeed, brought up a school-prayer proposal, debated it, and voted it down -- all within an afternoon. It was the latest setback for the New Right's political agenda, which appears to have lost ground on Capitol Hill. In past years, the emotion-laden dispute over school prayer has tied the upper chamber in knots for days and inspired one all-night vigil outside the Capitol.
The most spirited exchange this week came in the nearly empty Senate chamber when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona chided fellow Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, sponsor of the school prayer proposal.
``Did you write this bill?'' asked the veteran Arizona conservative, charging that it was unconstitutional and interfered with religious freedom. ``If I wrote it, I would be ashamed.''
Senator Helms's proposal, which would have forbidden federal courts to rule on cases involving prayer in schools, lost by an overwhelming 36-to-62 vote. Similar measures won a majority in the Senate two years before President Reagan took office and again in 1982.
``I thought we would have done better,'' said Gary L. Jarmin, chairman of the Christian Voice Moral Government Fund, an evangelical group that backs school prayer.
He says that ``the only problem is, we dropped the ball in terms of mobilizing grass-roots support.'' But he concedes that he expected to lose.
In fact, the ``religious right'' has failed in its chief aims, ranging from outlawing abortion to curbing school busing and enacting tuition aid for students at religious schools. Supporters have won more headlines than legislation, despite backing from President Reagan.
``While they make a lot of noise in the media, they have been markedly unsuccessful in legislation,'' says Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a frequent opponent of those initiatives.
One problem for the social-issues agenda is that it calls for constitutional amendments, which require a two-thirds majority in House and Senate. While the religious right made big gains in 1980 with the election of Mr. Reagan, its views do not dominate either house and in '84 it lost allies in the Senate.
Congressional members are now showing less concern about such groups asMoral Majority and Christian Voice.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R) of Connecticut in past years stood alone filibustering against proposals on prayer and abortion because he feared losing if the Senate voted. The liberal Republican was so certain of a victory Tuesday on school prayer that he was content to put his arguments on record without delivering them.
``Nobody's afraid anymore on matters of religious freedom and separation of powers,'' Senator Weicker said after the Senate defeated the school prayer bill. He told reporters that the American public had grown wary of ``television preachers'' who tie religion to government.
``The very groups that denounced government intrusion are the ones that are advocating government intrusion into lives,'' he said of the New Right. Another factor is that the Helms proposal to take away court jurisdiction has lost favor, even among some school-prayer advocates. Such ``court stripping'' is seen by many lawmakers as a dangerous precedent.
``Court stripping is pretty much of a dead issue,'' says Kim Yelton, an official with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that opposes organized prayer in public schools. She says that school-prayer advocates are not ``cooling down'' and still seek a constitutional amendment.
Helms was philosophical about his loss. ``That's the way the cookie crumbles,'' he told reporters, adding he would bring up the issue again next year and there would be more public support.
The Christian Voice's Mr. Jarmin points to some victories in Congress, such as continuing to curb abortion funding, even in international aid. But he says he is now telling evangelicals that major change may take more time. ``We're talking about overturning a power structure that's built up over 45, 50 years,'' he says.
Jarmin adds that he has all but stopped trying to lobby Congress and is now working with local church groups to influence elections. ``You've got to throw a lot of these mental pygmies out of Congress,'' he says. To that end, he applauds the vote this week.
``It maybe gives us some ammunition to take into the next elections,'' Jarmin says. ``The more votes we can get, the better -- because it helps separate the sheep from the goats.''