The philosophical "Great Debate" over President Reagan's cutback in social programs has been predicted for months. Up to now the dissent from Democratic liberals over the Reagan budget has been relatively muted. However, the assumption among veteran observers has been that as individual social programs were examined the liberals would loudly raise their voices, and the classic clash would come.
But now, with the Senate Finance Committee approving $10.3 billion in cuts in social programs by a 17-to-2, bipartisan vote, there is growing talk in Washington that the massive philosophical conflict may never appear.
The committee not only accepted big reductions for the next fiscal year in programs for the aged, ill, and poor. It voted to take $1 billion more from such programs than the President proposed cutting.
Thus it is that mood in Washington, obviously reflecting what is perceived here to be the desires of the American public, is to do very little to modify the thrust of a Reagan spending-cut package which, some observers have said, amounts to a quiet counter-revolution against the social programs brought in by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and added to by liberal Democratic leaders through the years.
The Reagan administration concedes that it will have some very tough battles ahead. Secretary of the Treasury Donald T. Reagan says this is inevitable.
But in conversation with reporters at breakfast May 6, Mr. Reagan made it clear he feels there is a conservative tide running throughout the United States with which the Congress -- both houses -- will eventually comply.
He asserted that people of all economic levels now are willing to take reductions in programs from which they benefit in order to bring about a revitalized economy and a permanent drop in inflation.
At the same time, many observers see in the President's continuing high public rating evidence that Reagan is correct in his thesis that conservatism is the ruling philosophy in the views of Americans coast to coast.
Their forecast now is that Reagan will continue to remain relatively high in the polls even when, as each legislative spending item is examined and voted on by Congress, Americans come to see how they will be cut back on social-program benefits.
However, what really is persuading observers here that prospects for a true, great philosophical debate are fading are new developments in Congress.
Beyond the action of the Senate Finance Comittee there was a vote by the Senate Banking Committee to deny future subsidies under the main housing program for the poor to any area that persists in practicing rent control.
The committee also voted to reduce the number of new assisted housing units for the poor to 150,000 for next year. This is 100,000 less than former President Carter had asked for and 25,000 less than even the Reagan proposal.
The Senate committees are controlled by the Republicans. But where, observers ask, was the liberal Democratic protest over the outcome of those votes?
So it is that Congress continues, at least at times, to "out-Reagan" Reagan in its effort to show the folks back home that its heart is with them.
And so it is, too, that observers see a Congress where a Democratic-controlled House will continue to be thrown off balance by Reagan's economic initiatives and which will, for the most part, be finding an accommodation with the President rather than trying to move him toward any meaningfu l, really different alternative.
Already, it seems, the Great Debate is a fizzle.