WASHINGTON — AS the federal welfare program collapsed around him last week, New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) gazed out across the Capitol lawn and wondered where all the banners and bullhorns had gone.
In years past, he recalled, any attempt to lay a glove on welfare or Medicare would have drawn throngs of protesters from nonprofit groups like the Children's Defense Fund, the American Association of Retired Persons, or the AFL-CIO.
Instead, as the new majority fights to overhaul dozens of social programs and eliminate federal grants to nonprofits that lobby Congress, many once-prominent advocacy groups are too busy trying to fend off attacks on themselves to worry about busing angry grandmothers to Capitol Hill.
To the extent that Republicans are able to weaken these groups, they will have achieved a long-sought victory over advocates of the old order - hastening the rise of conservatism in America.
''There's no question that our resources are being stretched like never before,'' says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a traditionally liberal advocacy group. ''Not only are our issues, and our constituencies in turmoil, but our very existence is being threatened. We're under fire from many quarters.''
One of the most direct threats is to a source of their own funding. On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee will hold hearings on an amendment sponsored by GOP Reps. David Macintosh of Indiana, and Ernest Istook of Oklahoma. The amendment, which still must be reconciled with a more moderate Senate version, would deny government funding for any nonprofit group that spends more than 5 percent of its budget on lobbying.
The bill's unstated mission is an old conservative goal of ''defunding the left'' that originated in the first years of the Reagan administration.
The targets are keepers of the old vanguard like the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC), a nonprofit that has been one of the Republicans' main adversaries on Medicare reform. In addition to its primary function of providing social services to the elderly, NCSC also spends a portion of its budget lobbying Congress on issues that affect seniors. The problem is: 96 percent of NCSC's budget comes from federal grants, which are used to provide social services for the elderly.
Conservatives argue that arrangements like this amount to welfare for lobbyists. They say after 40 years of Democratic rule, the nonprofit sector has grown too dependent on handouts, and has no interest in improving the programs that provide their livelihoods. Advocacy groups counter that they not only provide essential government services, but also a voice for groups that don't have deep corporate pockets.
''Why do the Republicans want to cut back the First Amendment rights of nonprofits,'' asks David Saltz, a lobbyist with the AFL-CIO, ''but not the lobbying privileges of defense contractors and corporations that make millions and profit from doing business with the federal government?''
Jim Weill, a spokesman for the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), argues that the purpose of the Macintosh-Istook bill is to ensure that ''only people who pay taxes are entitled to First Amendment protections.'' One of the bill's most enthusiastic supporters, Mr. Weill notes, is the beer wholesalers group, which has been rankled by alcohol-awareness campaigns over the years sponsored by advocacy groups.
Yet the GOP campaign to rein in these interest groups seems to be taking hold. In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Moynihan chided the advocates he once counted as his allies. ''Fifteen years ago, if there was a proposal to take $40 out of some demonstration project here on the Senate floor, there would be 40 representatives of various advocacy groups outside.''
Moynihan went on to suggest that increases in government grants may have made these groups more prone to be ''co-opted'' by an unfriendly Congress.
The attack has been unrelenting. On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee sent four-page questionnaires to three groups that are scheduled to testify at Thursday's hearing: the YMCA, a fiscal watchdog group called OMB Watch, and Ms. Aron's Alliance for Justice.
Aron says they demanded specific responses to questions about tax status, expenditures, and salary levels of her group. ''What we thought was going to be a hearing looks like it's going to be an inquisition,'' Aron says.
Weill concedes that conservative advocacy groups have been out hustling liberal ones. Joel Aberbach, a political scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, says interest groups aren't really out of favor. ''Congress is just listening to a different constellation of groups.''