Television lights switch on. Cameras whirr. Another smiling Republican senator or representative steps forward to endorse leading GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
More than one-half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives (67 out of 159) now have done so, including their second- ranking leader, the party whip. So, too, have nearly half of the GOP senators (17 out of 41), including both the minority leader and whip.
A bandwagon of enthusiastic congressional supporters of the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, it might appear, is steaming across Capitol Hill -- which, of course, is just the impression that the Reagan campaign wants to create.
But the appearance may be deceiving. Like Jimmy Carter before him, former California Governor Reagan -- despite the wave of endorsements -- remains very much an arm's-length outsiders to Congress.
Interviews among Republicans -- both those who have endorsed Mr. Reagan and those who haven't -- suggest that, outside of a small band of loyalists, the party's likely nominee for president is being received with more pragmatic acceptance than open-armed welcome.
"It's not that no one thinks Reagan is the best man. Many do," says an aide of one representative who recently announced his support. "But, above all, these guys on the Hill are politically pragmatic, and they understand the way the wind is blowing."
One California Republican who hasn't endorsed Mr. Reagan, Rep, Paul N. McCloskey Jr., also detects a tepidness. "To the true conservative, he's the last person of real national stature [who] is electable," Mr. McCloskey says. "Among them, there's a good deal of enthusiasm," he says, "But some of my friends who have supported Reagan are not enthusiastic about it."
Behind the obligatory words of acclaim for the former California governor echoed in the congressional endorsements often lie more hard-headed reasons that have very little to do with being convinced of the candidate's qualifications.
One of them is simple acknowledgment of the political reality that Mr. Reagan probably has the nomination sewed up.
"I think the contest is virtually over at this point," concedes Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R) of Wyoming, who was White House chief of staff for the man who defeated Mr. Reagan for the nomination in 1976, Gerald R. Ford, but who now endorses Mr. Reagan.
Another reason is party unity. "The time has come to unite our party," explained Senate minority leader Howard H. Baker Jr., once a rival of Mr. Reagan for the nomination, in backing the Californian last weekend.
The warmth of congressional endorsements might be less significant in this year's election than afterward, should Mr. Reagan becom President. If elected, his ability to work closely with Congress is likely to be crucial.
Standoffishness on Capitol Hill Toward Mr. Carter -- another former governor with little instinctive rapport with Congress -- is widely believed to have handicapped his programs throughout his presidency. And President Carter has had the advantage of Democratic majorities in both House and Senate -- something Mr. Reagan would be unlikely to enjoy.
The endorsements of Mr. Reagan by congressional Republicans frequently have been far from spontaneous. The largest batch -- from 36 lawmakers last week -- was staged by Reagan operatives as a low-budget headline-grabber for their cash-starved campaign in the Pennsylvania presidential primary. It was thrown together on such short notice that the endorsements caught some of the congressmen's own staffs by surprise.
Former Governor Reagan's guarded reception on Capitol Hill has occured despite attempts to cultivate congressional support on an unprecedentedly lavish scale. Citizens for the Republic, a California-based political action committee funded by money left over from the unsuccessful 1976 Reagan presidential campaign, gave $615,385 to 25 Senate candidates and 234 House hopefuls (plus 141 state and local, office seekers) during the 1978 campaign.
But the heavy investment so far has yielded no bonanza of grateful Reaganites on Capitol Hill.
Only three of the six top recipients who won election to the Senate (Republicans Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who got $10,000; James McClure of Idaho, $5,166; and Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, $5,000) have endorsed Mr. Reagan.
Another, David Durenberger of Minnesota, a political moderate who received $3 ,675 as well as Reagan radio endorsements for his successful 1978 campaign, has no plans to reciprocate.
Nor do Republicans running for Congress this year appear to be rushing to associate their campaigns with their party's probable standard bearer. An official of the National Republican Congressional Committee who just returned from a nine-day swing across the country reports no evidence that GOP candidates out on the campaign trail are yet hitching their political wagons to the Reagan star.
The circle of Mr. Reagan's close allies on Capitol Hill, like Mr. Carter's four years ago, seems exceedingly small.
Names of two groups of Reagan policy advisers, on foreign and defense issues, were announced this week. Among the 67 persons listed there was not a single congressman.
In the Senate, the Reagan "inner circle" may be limited to one: Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada. Senator Laxalt was the only member of Congress to endorse Mr. Reagan at the start of his 1976 race.He is Mr. Reagan's national campaign chairman this year.
"No one else has worked that closely with him," says a Laxalt aide, unable to name any other Reagan intimates among the 100 senators.
In the House, the potential GOP presidential nominee is reportedly closest to Republicans Jack F. Kemp of New York, Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, and John H. Rousselot of California. Congressman Kemp, a former professional football quarterback, got his start in politics working for Governor Reagan in California. He now is the Reagan campaign's chairman for policy development.