A breeze of election-year conser-vativism is blowing through the upper chamber of the United States Congress. With the capital city immersed in international crises and budget deficits, almost no one is paying attention to the shift. But the Senate during the past two weeks and with remarkably little opposition has rewritten the rules for the US criminal justice system.
The get-tough-on-crime effort is only the first of several conservative advances expected in the coming weeks.
Soon after the Presidents' Day recess, the Senate will consider a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in schools. Renewed debate over abortion is almost guaranteed before the elections, and the Senate is also expected to consider cutting back public access to government records under the Freedom of Information Act.
The crime legislation passed by the Senate, but still needing House action, would overturn some basic traditions in American justice and attempt to overturn Supreme Court rulings, dating back to 1914, that exclude illegally seized evidence from trials. The Senate-passed bills would:
* Allow courts to consider criminal evidence, even if it has been obtained illegally. If police made the seizure in a ''reasonable good-faith belief'' that they were not violating constitutional rights, the evidence could be offered in court.
* Reduce prison inmate appeals to federal courts. The bill would refuse access to federal courts once cases have been ''fully and fairly'' tried in the state justice systems.
* Permit judges to jail accused criminals before their trials if they are deemed dangerous to the community. Courts have long held the ''innocent until proven guilty'' standard, which in theory permits pretrial detention only if a defendant might not appear for trial.
Despite the sweeping changes they propose, the bills slid through the Senate with ease. Even the last and most controversial, a proposed new federal death penalty law, seems assured passage. Opponents threatened a filibuster, but Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee moved to cut off debate even before the debate began.
Senators, who rarely vote to cut off debate on the first try, overwhelmingly approved the cloture motion last week. The promised filibuster was stopped even as it began. Final vote will come after the recess on the bill, which provides for the death penalty for attempted assassination of a president and for some crimes of espionage and treason.
''In the last two years the public has been more fearful than ever of the criminal,'' explained Senate Judiciary chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, when asked why the crime bills have moved so swiftly.
But Sen. George J. Mitchell, an ardent opponent of the death penalty, took the Senate floor and charged that a ''steamroller'' had been at work. ''Carefully drawn rules that protect the rights of all Americans have been modified'' without regard to the Constitution, the Maine Democrat said.
''I think it is a political exercise,'' said the senator, a former prosecutor and federal judge, in an interview. ''Without any question this is an effort to deal with the so-called social-issues agenda, which the President has promised to his conservative supporters.''
Many members of Congress are afraid to vote against any of the crime bills, because ''if you vote against any of these measures, you'll be perceived as soft on crime or pro-crime,'' said Senator Mitchell. Political groups can spotlight a single vote in a TV advertisement, he said. ''There is widespread concern that a vote might be distorted.''
Senator Thurmond discounted the steamroller charge. ''They've had a chance to talk,'' he said after the cloture vote on the death penalty. ''Everybody knows what they want. Eighty percent of the people favor the death penalty.''
Senator Baker told a reporter that he filed the petition to limit debate only because Congress was set to leave for a recess.
South Carolina's Thurmond said he hoped that the ''sentiment in the country has now crystallized,'' so that the House will be pressured to act on the crime bills.
However, prospects for passing any of the most controversial crime bills look dim in the House, where they are now bottled up in committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate will move late this month to the school prayer amendment, sponsored by the unlikely pair of Senator Baker and New Right leader Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. Not only is school prayer on the presidential agenda of conservative issues, it also gives the moderate Baker, whose presidential ambitions are no secret, a way to shore up his own right flank.
''If there's a way you can tamp down some of the conservative criticism, sure we're (for it),'' said a Baker aide, who explained that his boss has sometimes had trouble projecting his personal views because of his job as majority leader. ''His job is to try to make this place work,'' said the aide.
Now in his last year before retiring from Congress, Baker has little time to reach out to the general public from his Senate post. In school prayer he has chosen the one social issue he has long supported and the one said to have the widest popular approval.
Although he has not promoted antiabortion legislation, Baker is expected to keep the door open for an abortion debate.
''It's a Congress with little else to do,'' said an aide to Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, of the social issues. Senator Packwood, who has often fought against abortion restrictions, is now watching for new fights on abortion, whether on a constitutional amendment, a funding cutoff, or a human-life bill.
''Packwood is a fireman just waiting for the alarm,'' the aide said.