The political future of a president may be at stake, but the congressional hearings on Billy Carter, which open this week in a somber, walnut-paneled Senate meeting room, are starting out studiously low key.
The kickoff sessions Aug. 4 and 6 by the special Senate subcommittee looking into the younger Carter's ties with the radical government of Libya are likely to be more educational than investigative.
A succession of diplomats, middle-level officials, and experts will provide introductory briefings on American relations with the North African country and Washington's regulation of foreign agents -- testimony calculated to produce scholarly insights rather than sensational revelations.
The actual Billy Carter case, in fact, deliberately will be skirted altogether. But, after a week's breather for the Democratic National Convention to presumably renominate President Carter, the low-gear investigation is programmed to accelerate quickly to top speed.
All the key witnesses -- very likely including the President himself -- are scheduled to be cammed into a rapid-fire series of hearings in the final two weeks of August.
The President has pronounced himself "eager to respond in person" to the committee, but his testimony may wind up being obtained in some other way. The President's younger brother also is virtually certain to be cross-examined, although a committee aide says there has been "no discussion of it yet."
Also apparently unresolved is whether to summon any representatives of the Libyan government, which engaged Billy Carter to serve as one of its agents here and paid him $220,000.
The groundwork-laying nature of this week's hearings, and the conspicuous gaps that remain in future plans, result from the investigation's hurried start-up.
The Senate Watergate committee waited more than three months after its inquiry was authorized to open hearings in 1973. The House of Representatives probe into allegations of South Korean influence-buying took nearly six months to really get under way in 1977.
The Billy Carter hearings, by contrast, will be gaveled to order barely 10 days after the Senate authorized them.
The rushed pace has been forced by compressed legislative and political timetables. Only six weeks of lawmaking remain before Congress is scheduled to adjourn at the beginning of October.
Besides, President Carter and his fellow Democrats who control Congress want to get the Billy Carter embarrassment out of the way as early as possible in the political campaign leading up to the November elections.
While the quick start on the hearings may have squelched any charges of foot-dragging, it has left wide breaches in the subcommittee's investigate readiness. A general counsel -- the chief investigator, interrogator, and unifying figure in any such probe -- has yet to be hired. The staff is an interim crew borrowed and bootlegged from elsewhere on Capitol Hill until a general counsel can assemble his own. It has had little time for investigative legwork.
The general direction to be taken by the Senate inquiry, once it gets going, is suggested by the documentary materials it has requested:
* Any favored treatment that Billy Carter might have received from the executive branch of government headed by his brother, the President, notably from the Department of State, Department of Justice, intelligence agencies, or the White house itself.
* Any impact, favorable or otherwise, by the younger Mr. Carter on American foreign policy or economic ties affecting Libya -- a country whose relations with the United States are complicated by its export of both desirable low-sulfur oil and anti-Israel world terrorism.
* Any part that the President's brother may have played in a broader campaign by Libya to cultivate influence in this country, including possible gifts to lawmakers.