Just a week after the lame ducks finally took wing, the newly elected 98th Congress moves into the Capitol, a far different body from its predecessor. No longer do members owe their victories to Reagan coattails. No longer do Republicans or Democrats see a powerful national urge to support a new President.
The 98th Congress that takes its oath of office today will have only five new faces in the Senate and 79 in the House. Yet it is certain to be far more independent of the White House, less interested in ideology, and more engrossed in looking for practical solutions.
And it will need all the solutions it can find as unemployment nears 11 percent and the nation's major industries falter. Even more pressing for lawmakers are the problems of the social security system, which demand congressional action this year.
One Democratic staffer says it's like ''driving 45 miles per hour toward a brick wall'' - and the car is coming very close to the wall. Already forced to borrow money to pay out checks, the pension fund, which is the biggest in the social security system, is expected to be seriously low on cash by the end of this year.
Lawmakers have the unhappy choice of raising taxes, cutting the growth in benefits, or more borrowing from other federal funds. All of the options are painful, but both parties will be under pressure to reach a compromise that everyone can swallow even if no one likes it very much.
They will probably have to act quickly, since when it comes to tough votes, Congress is bravest when farthest away from its next election. The President's vaunted Social Security Commission has apparently failed to produce a solution, but the search will continue behind closed doors. Returning members and newcomers see the issue as high on the agenda.
''The time has come to face it,'' said freshman Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California before the new Congress convened. ''It's not going to be pleasant or easy,'' he said, calling all of the solutions to the social security dilemma ''unpalatable.''
If the highest hopes are realized, Congress will put social security back on firm financial ground by early spring, just before it turns full attention to another major concern, the federal budget.
Although the President does not send his 1984 budget requests to Congress until the end of this month, sparks are already flying amid reports of 20 to 25 percent cuts in domestic spending and a big boost for defense as well as a deficit of over $150 billion.
Both parties in Congress have warned that they will not cut more from domestic programs. President Reagan will have to fight hard for his military requests. He will also have to fight skepticism about his MX missile and provide a new, plausible basing system since the proposed ''dense pack'' plan has flopped on Capitol Hill.
Instead of building up the armed forces, many members will be looking for ways to rebuild the economy through some kind of jobs program. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee has promised that jobs will be top on the agenda for the 98th Congress. While he rejected a Democratic plan for public works employment, a jobs plan is likely to reappear this year under the Republican label.
Meanwhile, Congress will be looking for other ways to fight joblessness. Growing protectionist feelings have already produced symbolic ''buy-America'' votes. The next step could be laws to stem the flow of automobiles and steel, especially from Japan.
Unemployment in the United States may also provide a spur to the 98th Congress to complete a major immigration reform bill begun two years ago. The bill, which includes sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens, would be the first major attempt to control the influx of foreign workers.
However, the newly installed lawmakers will wait a few weeks before taking up such heavy issues. Required by the US Constitution to open their new session this week, they will not begin in earnest until after Jan. 31, the day the President delivers his budget.
For now, Congress will attend to housekeeping chores. Democrats, who return with 26 additional House seats, are flexing their new muscles. They are proposing House rule changes that strengthen the Democratic leadership. The rules attempt to block parliamentary tactics, such as demands for recorded votes on routine matters, often used by the minority to delay action or win points.
House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois has protested the changes, but the new rules will probably win easily just after the swearing-in ceremony, one sign of the resurgence of Democrats in the House.
Also this week the new Congress will complete committee assignments. Members will vie for the important committees such as Appropriations, Ways and Means (the House committee with jurisdiction over taxes and social security), and Budget.
The new setup will bring few dramatic changes. In the Senate, the freshman class is the smallest since senators were first elected by popular vote, and no major chairmanships are up for grabs. In the House, the biggest change coming is that Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida will take over chairmanship of the powerful Rules Committee.