Scores of conservatively dressed Washington lobbyists are lining up behind red velvet ropes outside the Senate Finance Committee hearing room 30 minutes before the panel is scheduled to meet.
Most of those standing in line will not get a seat when the massive wooden doors to Room 215 in the Dirksen Building swing open. The room is so cramped and the crowd so big that many lobbyists will have to perch on a window ledge or stand two or three deep along the room's perimeter for hours on end.
Watching the committee at work is ''cruel and unusual punishment'' quips Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole (R) of Kansas.
The lobbyists have come to watch the most visible part of the complex, slow-moving process by which Congress and the White House seem to be inching toward a plan to cut the federal deficit.
Congressional leaders say they want to finish budget action before the Easter recess. Deficit trimming work after the recess would be tougher since election day would be closer.
It is still far from certain that the deficit will be trimmed this year but there are some modestly hopeful signs. One is the apparent progress in efforts to hammer out a defense-spending compromise - a key sticking point in deficit-reduction negotiations - between the White House and Senate Republicans.
''We are hopeful we could work something out shortly,'' presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday.
The action under discussion will cut no more than $150 billion (and probably less) from the estimated $600 billion in deficits over the next three budget years. So next year, Congress will have ''to take a hard look at some broad (new) tax,'' Senator Dole says.
Action to reduce the deficit has shifted, probably permanently, from bipartisan negotiations held at Blair House, the presidential guest house, to wrangling in congressional committees and in interparty meetings.
The bipartisan talks have not been canceled, but their effectiveness had been undercut. Earlier this week President Reagan said that he had ''lost a little faith in the bipartisan approach.'' He accused Democrats of not making serious proposals, among other things. House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas responded by telling the House that the President had lied about Democratic unwillingness to compromise and put forth ideas on how to cut the deficit.
While the bipartisan negotiations have reached an impasse, there is some modest progress in interparty talks. Senate Republicans reportedly have made progress toward reaching an agreement with the President on the size of a defense spending cut to be included in a Senate deficit-cutting package.
The administration's Defense Department budget proposed spending $305 billion in the coming year, a 13 percent increase over the fiscal 1984 budget after inflation. Work on a Republican budget package had been stalled by the President's reluctance to make significant cuts in that figure.
By comparison, Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico has proposed a 5 percent defense increase. After discussions with Senate Republicans at the White House Wednesday, Senator Domenici said that ''things are looking much better'' on reaching agreement on tough issues, including defense.
Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan said the President would consider trimming the defense budget if major weapons systems were not cut. Regan said that a 6 percent increase ''might be appropriate.''
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is putting finishing touches on a revenue package, which it hoped to complete last night. Its goal is to raise $50 billion in new revenue. The GOP leaders' plan is to augment the revenue with cuts in defense and nondefense spending.
But progress has been slow: Finance committee members have voted for measures that reduce federal tax revenues. Dole said such revenue-losing proposals would not be made final if offsetting revenues were not found.
The House Ways and Means Committee has already finished work on a tax bill that raises $49.2 billion. And Democratic leaders now are hammering out the details of spending cuts to be offered along with the new tax revenue.