It's the season once again for talk of reform in the United States Senate. As the ''world's greatest deliberative body'' has become mired in controversy during the closing days of its 1984 session, the voices of impatient lawmakers have been rising.
''We are really entering the twilight zone of the legislative process,'' moaned Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana as the Senate took up a catchall funding bill that must be passed to keep the federal government operating. He predicted correctly that individual senators would delay the bill's passage with amendments, ''all sorts of gyrations,'' procedural tactics, and speeches.
The last days of the session will ''make abundantly clear the case for serious reform,'' Senator Quayle said late last week as a handful of his colleagues concurred on the Senate floor. It was but the latest of many complaints about the lax state of affairs in the upper chamber, where one senator, armed with a long speech or a stack of amendments, can bring the Senate to a standstill.
In the current senatorial gridlock, the issue has been a proposed civil rights measure that supporters are vowing to attach to the catchall funding bill. Opponent Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has managed to halt the antidiscrimination measure almost single-handedly. ''I'm prepared to hold out as long as I can,'' he has declared.
The standoff immobilized the Senate at least from Sept. 27 through the start of this week. Members have milled around the chamber, conferring with one another, while the clerk almost endlessly calls the roll. Off the floor they have been huddling in hideaway rooms in the Capitol, seeking a solution, which will almost inevitably be found so that members can go home next week for the campaign season.
But meanwhile, even a bid to move to less controversial parts of the spending bill proved to be contentious. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee tried Monday to take up the transportation section, if members would agree to refrain from attaching unrelated amendments. The plan failed. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona announced he wanted to add an amendment about ''malt beverages.''
Over the years reformists have proposed ways to tighten Senate rules by putting more limits on debates, amendments, and delay tactics. A little more than a year ago, former Sens. James B. Pearson (R) of Kansas and Abraham Ribicoff (D) of Connecticut provided a plan for a major overhaul of Senate rules. Their proposals included limits on debate time, requiring amendments to be germane to the bills to which they are attached, and a more rigid agenda. But such ideas rarely take hold in the upper chamber, where individual rights of the members are jealously guarded. The Pearson-Ribicoff report has been mostly ignored.
The latest push for reform comes from freshman Senator Quayle, chairman of a temporary Senate panel that recently proposed streamlining Senate committees, and from a number of junior senators.
The reform mood could evaporate once the Senate finally resolved its perennial year-end problems. But some on Capitol Hill say the feelings are stronger this time. ''It's just outrageous,'' says Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas. ''It's going to force us into making constructive changes.''
Even Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia has said he might propose some rules changes.
The subject has been given new life in the race for Senate majority leader. Five Republicans are vying for the post being vacated by Senator Baker, who is retiring. ''I'm not sure it's an issue in the race'' for majority leader, said Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho, one of the candidates, in an interview. But he has made a point of taking a lead on reform.
''It's a question of how do you balance the right of the individual against the ability of the whole institution to function,'' says the Idaho senator, who adds that reform of Senate rules ''should be the first item of business in the next Congress.''
Senate majority whip Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, another hopeful for the majority leader job, this week introduced proposals for revamping Senate procedures.
Another candidate, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, called for ''reestablishment of the reputation of the United States Senate as an effective deliberative body'' in a letter to his colleagues. The other contestants, Sens. Robert Dole of Kansas and Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, have been less vocal on the issue.
Republicans will need Democratic support for any rules change, however, since a revision would require a two-thirds majority. Senate Rules Committee chairman Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland cautions that a rules change ''is a thoroughly bipartisan question.''
He has heard many of the protests many times before. ''Sooner or later, the dam will overflow'' and force changes, says Senator Mathias of the complaints. ''Maybe (it's) this time.''