To the weighty issues at stake in the United States Senate, add a new obsession with empty vs. filled chairs. At the Senate Agriculture Committee, a Democratic aide meticulously keeps track of senators who show up for meetings, and of those who don't.
Republicans and Democrats used to greet each other with ``Good morning. How're you doing?'' says a staff aide on the Labor and Human Resources Committee. ``Now it's `Good morning. Where are the people on your side?' ''
From the most obscure hearing to major committee meetings, that question has taken on new importance to the two parties. ``It's like being back in third grade, getting attendance,'' complains Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, the Republican whip.
``It's rinky-dink,'' says Sen. Lawton Chiles, a Florida Democrat.
But the seat check has also become a serious exercise, one more sign of the pervasive party wrangling in the current Congress. It is a direct result of the elections of 1984, when Republican Mitch McConnell pulled out a surprise victory over veteran Democratic Sen. Walter D. Huddleston in Kentucky.
Democrats, still recovering from that upset, trace it partly to Republican charges that Senator Huddleston skipped committee meetings.
Only last week at a policy luncheon GOP senators watched reruns of the famous McConnell TV ad showing a hound dog sniffing around Washington as if to look for the absent Senator Huddleston. Senator McConnell warned his colleagues that Democrats would try to use the same weapon against them in 1986.
In private meetings, Democrats have talked about doing exactly that.
One change has already occurred. Democrats are coming to committee meetings even more regularly than Republicans, according to a GOP staff survey. Even when they are due at several simultaneously, Democrats are making the rounds and staying at least long enough to put a statement in the record.
The attendance game may appear silly to some. But it points to the strong partisan feelings in Congress, as the parties play out an intense competition for control. In the Senate the Democrats see next year as their best opportunity to win back the majority, since 22 GOP seats are up for reelection.
``This is a critical issue for the country,'' says David E. Johnson, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Committee. The attendance skirmish ``is one of the little ways it works itself out.''
``Anybody who doesn't realize that the real issue is control of the Senate is kidding themselves,'' says Tom Griscom, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But the struggle goes beyond the upper chamber. In both houses partisanship is on the rise. Once-blurry lines that separated Democrat and Republican are becoming more sharply defined, as issues ranging from the budget to Nicaragua are decided largely by party positions.
Not since the election of President Reagan has the federal budget been so strictly partisan. The House Budget Committee Democrats met privately for weeks, drafted a budget, and then in quick order passed it with few changes and only one Republican vote. Earlier, Senate Republicans pushed a GOP budget first through committee and then through the full Senate in similar fashion.
Foreign policy and defense, traditionally determined by bipartisan agreement, have also fallen into party positioning, as the Democratic House turned down President Reagan's request for aid to rebels in Nicaragua.
Contributing to the partisanship has been the strong ideology of President Reagan, who has served as a polarizing force. But party feelings have also been fostered in the House by a hot dispute over a close election for an Indiana seat. Republicans, who lost the seat and charged that it was stolen, have said they have never seen the GOP so united.
Meanwhile, in the Senate the emergence of a new strong majority leader in Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has also played a role in galvanizing both parties.
Opinion is divided on the effects of the new partisan atmosphere. The retiring Sen. Russell Long (D) of Louisiana has complained that the Senate has grown too partisan. But others see the development as healthy. ``I think it's a very positive thing from both sides,'' says George A. Ramonas, a consultant and former GOP Senate aide. ``It's about time we clarify the two parties.''
For Republicans, the clarification is particularly important, since they are attempting to prove that they are capable of governing after only four years of controlling the Senate.
Meanwhile, senators continue to bicker over attendance at subcommittees. Both sides suspect each other of using camera crews to film senatorial nameplates in front of empty chairs, despite flat denials from party campaign officials. Senator Chiles recalls watching aides quickly remove nameplates after a party-hired camera crew arrived to film a subcommittee.
``It's disruptive,'' says deputy GOP leader Senator Simpson. ``It creates suspicion and bad feeling.''
He and others are calling for a powwow to set the rules for partisan warfare and ease the tensions in committees, but no time has been set for the cease-fire talks.