WASHINGTON — ON a wintry night at the Capitol, as the scent of wood smoke drifts through the marble corridors, Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee (R) tries to explain why so many of his colleagues, so many dear old friends, are retiring.
''It reflects the pleasantness of the place,'' he says, his famous grin wilting a bit. ''There's been an increase in partisanship, an increase in tension.''
By all accounts, today's Congress is at war with the past. From federal entitlement programs to golf junkets, little is sacred for Washington's new crop of lawmakers. Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R), one of 13 senators and 22 representatives opting for oil portraits next year, calls the freshman legislators ''bug-eyed zealots.''
The rise of the new order, and the exodus of moderates like Senator Simpson, has huge implications for governance. The problem, say veteran members, is that as ideological positions harden in Congress, compromise becomes elusive.
Often, they argue, the headstrong lawmakers that voters send to Capitol Hill only gum the works. ''People who complain that Washington doesn't listen are wrong,'' says former Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Edwards. ''It listens too much. People are putting unreasonable demands on legislators, so they are more willing to draw lines in the sand.''
The new political landscape is, in large measure, the creation of the 73-member GOP freshman class in the House. Most freshmen ran against Washington, and few plan to stay long. Only a handful have purchased homes here: South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford sleeps on a cot in his office. Others, including Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn, vow to limit their tenure to three terms.
Rep. Steve Largent, another Oklahoman, rents a three-bedroom town house with two other GOP freshmen and goes home to see his family nearly every weekend. Ideally, he says, his congressional career will be remembered as ''brilliant and short.''
Unlike other freshman classes, this group has real power. Eighteen won seats on influential committees, and three were chosen to chair subcommittees. On the floor, freshmen have ignored taboos about bucking the leadership. They have hijacked appropriations bills they believed were too mild, even though President Clinton had already promised to veto them.
This, observers say, is the crux of the problem. ''Freshmen feel they've got to do as much as they can in as short a time as possible because they may not have a second bite at the apple,'' says political analyst Charles Cook. ''Ironically, when people are more determined to get things done in Congress, less happens.''
Indeed, their sprawling agenda, which encompasses banning military base abortions to dismantling the Commerce Department, combined with their legendary unwillingness to yield, have helped keep Congress in session this year for a record number of hours.
According to Mr. Cook, today's snarly climate began in the 1980s, when voter turnout dipped. As fewer moderate voters participated in primary elections, he says, more elections became battles between ''ideologues.''
Inside Congress, Cook adds, centrists have not shown the same staying power. Some influential GOP moderates in the House have opted for Senate bids, while moderate Senators, like Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas have chosen to fold their tents.
Senior members warn their replacements are rarely as principled or experienced. ''I believe the quality of the Senate has deteriorated measurably,'' says Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas.
Not everyone agrees. Rep. Frank Wolf, (R) of Virginia, argues that Congress is simply a reflection of society. ''If Congress is a glove,'' he said during a recent radio interview, ''then the American people are the fingers and the hand.''
''People talk about consensus, but that's absurd,'' former Representative Edwards says. ''With 300 million people, the most you can hope for is compromise. We are asking our political leaders for clear, simple, ideologically coherent answers, and we want them to get things done. That only works if we all have the same simple answers.''
One culprit, Cook says, is the abundance of ''unfiltered information'' from sources like C-Span, talk radio, and the Internet. According to pollsters, he says, more Americans are ''absolutely certain'' about facts they've heard, even when they are incorrect. A recent Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe Congress is more corrupt today than 20 years ago, he says, ''even though that is completely wrong.''
Still, led by its newest members, Congress has gone sweeping. Staff sizes and franking budgets have been cut, restrictions on gifts and lobbying enacted, and debates about term limits and campaign-finance reform thrust forward.
Freshmen have helped topple taboos. Personal attacks during floor debates are more common, and members have dropped reservations about campaigning against colleagues. Earlier this year, freshman Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania pressured leaders to strip Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, a fellow Republican, of his committee chairmanship for voting against the balanced-budget amendment.
DEVELOPMENTS like these have all but erased the collegiality of the old Congress. Gone are the days when Senators used to plan bipartisan potlucks. It is unlikely that a House Speaker and a minority leader will soon play golf together, as former Reps. Tip O'Neil and Robert Michel once did.
In this climate, some say, moderates have less incentive to brave the rhetorical crossfire. As they leave, they take away the kinds of cross-party friendships that have proven indispensible in the past in brokering compromises.
''The best legislation comes when you reach across to the other side,'' Senator Chafee says, as the gilded doors of a Senate elevator close. ''New members think the other side doesn't matter.''