WASHINGTON — IN a dimly lit banquet room near Capitol Hill, over plates of chicken parmesan and lemon sponge cake, 30 lobbyists have gathered to talk shop. ''A den of thieves,'' one quips.
But the blue suits at this luncheon aren't swapping tales of lobbying triumphs, or even plotting ways to corner and cajole the guest of honor, Virginia Rep. James Moran (D).
Instead, they're commiserating.
As the Republican Congress barrels ahead with its plan to revolutionize government, the business of political advocacy is in turmoil as never before. Lobbyists - like the media and other access-based Washington professions - had grown comfortable with the status quo of Democratic legislative power.
Now there are new rules about who can see whom, and for many in the cellular-phone set the adjustment has not been easy.
A favored class of GOP-connected lobbyists has more entree than ever. So much, critics claim, that lobbyist-drafted legislation is passing almost directly into law.
But many lobbyists, particularly those identified with Democratic policies, are finding the ''era of Newt'' to be a time of closed doors. What's worse, they're attacked on all sides as parasites, not the invaluable purveyors of information many believe themselves to be.
''I'm tired of lobbyists being treated as second-class citizens,'' Representative Moran said at the luncheon. ''Lobbyists contribute a lot to democracy. They provide continuity and institutional memory. Most of them have been around longer than members.''
The problem, Moran contends, is that members of Congress ''let themselves be unduly influenced'' by campaign contributions and ''don't listen to both sides.'' When imperfect laws are passed, ''the fault belongs to the members.''
In this group, there are many stories of the tough times that have befallen lobbyists. One, who declined to be named, explained that he had just been on Capitol Hill trying to speak to several House-Senate conferees working on the telecommunications bill. By the time he found out the status of the measure he was interested in, he says, ''it was a fait accompli.''
''The Republicans know that a lot of their agenda is vulnerable to attack,'' the lobbyist continues, ''so they don't want it to see the light of day. They say they believe in openness in government, but their message is too important to risk it.'' In the new Congress, he argues, ''ideological and personal connections mean more than hearing all the information.''
Indeed, the GOP has made no secret of its plan to change the lobbying landscape. As their chances of victory grew last year, congressional Republicans made it clear that if lobbyists and Political Action Committees (PACS) expected to have any influence in the 104th Congress, they had better ante up. In October, then-minority leader Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia warned: ''For anybody who's not on board now, it's going to be the two coldest years in Washington.''
IT was not an idle threat. Since taking over, the GOP has left many lobbyists, particularly Democratic favorites, sidelined and on the defensive.
On several occasions, Democrats have held mock hearings on the Capitol lawn to protest what they consider their unfair exclusion from policy debates. Democrats have also criticized a Republican bill that would limit lobbying by nonprofit groups who receive federal grants. The measure would gag advocacy groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons and charities such as the Red Cross, they say, while putting no lobbying limits on industry trade groups such the Beer Wholesalers' Association.
Moreover, Democrats complain that Republicans have allowed unprecedented access to a handful of like-minded lobbyists. For example, Audubon Society representatives say that Republicans allowed several companies they consider ''polluters'' to help draft legislation that would weaken the Clean Water Act.
''It used to be that lobbyists waited in the lobby,'' said Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd (D). ''Now they're being whisked into offices to write legislation. Those who write the checks, write the laws.... It's not the kind of change Americans voted for.''
Yet not every observer thinks things have changed so much. Josh Goldstein of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics says the only real difference today is which candidates are receiving PAC money.
According to reports by the campaign-finance reform advocacy group Common Cause, the pendulum of contributions has swung from Democrats to Republicans. In the first six months of 1995, House GOP freshmen received $5 million in contributions, or 45 percent of all PAC money.
''You see a different group of patrons being wined and dined, but the system remains fundamentally the same as it has been for generations,'' Mr. Goldstein says. ''The Republicans don't mind visibly letting lobbyists write the laws. Before, it was more hidden. But as far as lobbying goes, it's business as usual.''
Wright Andrews, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist-for-hire, says that after the election, lobbying groups rushed to sign up former Republican staff members who would have more entree with the new leadership. If this new inner circle of lobbyists seems more exclusive, he says, it's because there were fewer Republican cognoscenti to go around.
While he acknowledges that the Republicans are more ''ideological'' than their Democratic predecessors, Mr. Andrews says that overall, lobbyists are faring well in Congress, particularly because so many government programs are under review. ''Business is good,'' he says.