The issue is not just on the back burner. It has moved into the refrigerator. As the economic signs turn rosier, the matter of the expected $200 billion federal deficit has almost dropped out of discussion in the capital.
''I think the political leaders have opted to try to ride it out'' and hope that the economy will be strong through the 1984 election year, says House Budget chairman James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma. He charges that such a ''callous'' attitude is ''paralyzing'' the government, keeping it from making the tax and spending changes needed to reduce deficits.
Representative Jones this week joined the call for a bipartisan summit meeting on the deficit problem. But Washington is clearly not in a mood for taking up the unpopular choices involved in reducing red ink.
''There is little appetite on the part of Congress or the administration to take any steps to reduce the deficit,'' says Sen. John C. Danforth (R) of Missouri. He is frustrated that no one is acting, so he and cosponsors have a plan to reduce deficits by $117 billion over three years, and they called a press conference to try to attract attention.
''Obviously, what we're trying to do is go over the heads of the White House to the American people,'' Senator Danforth told reporters. His proposal would raise revenues, while reducing cost-of-living increases for entitlements such as social security.
There are other signs of deficit rumbling on Capitol Hill. A number of mostly liberal Democratic newcomers are trying to prod their leadership into dramatic action. ''A number of us are pretty admamant,'' says Rep. Jim Moody of Wisconsin , a freshman who circulated a petition demanding a Democratic caucus meeting last week to discuss deficits.
Representative Moody, an economist, says that new Democrats ran on an economic platform of jobs and reducing deficits. Even if the improving economy reduces deficits, ''they won't go down enough,'' he says, since entitlements, defense spending, and tax cuts will continue to produce deficits.
''This recovery has the seeds of its own limit,'' the Wisconsin Democrat says. Like others concerned about deficits, he foresees the government crowding out business as they both try to borrow more money.
This budding antideficit movement is important, some Democrats say, because it involves liberals, many of whom say they are willing to cut domestic spending. ''I don't think we're in a good position to just talk about raising taxes,'' says Representative Moody.
Democrat Jim Bates of California, a fellow freshman liberal, says: ''I'm willing to cut social services.'' He is now gathering names of fellow Democrats who would withhold votes on a key stopgap spending bill in November unless the leadership agrees to take bold action on deficits.
''It's got to be the liberal Democrats that make the difference because the conservatives have been talking about these things (deficits) for a long time,'' Representative Bates says.
Dramatic action on deficits now appears unlikely, however. Not even the House leadership has agreed to lead the way unless the White House agrees to go along. On both sides of Capitol Hill it is now conceded that the 1984 congressional budget is all but dead, chiefly because it calls for $73 billion in tax increases over three years, a proposal President Reagan has promised to veto.
Instead, Congress is preparing to trim around the edges of the deficit. Tax-writing committees in both houses now are planning to write a tax bill that would raise up to $20 billion over three years. And the budget committees are putting together a ''reconciliation'' bill, which would reduce federal spending and probably save $11 billion in three years, according to the House Budget Committee.
Rep. James M. Shannon, a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, maintains that such moves are a beginning. ''Everybody's looking for major steps,'' he says.
''This place doesn't work in major steps. It works in increments,'' says the Massachusetts Democrat.
A spokesman for Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico sees little room for action until 1985, after the presidential election, when there is a clearer ''mandate.'' Meanwhile, he says, the Budget Committee has little choice except to ''go along.'' ''This is the will of the Congress,'' the aide says.