Members of Congress may have left clean plates at Thanksgiving tables, but the legislative platter awaiting their return to Capitol Hill today is piled high with leftovers. With only about three weeks remaining, the lawmakers must complete virtually all of the major tasks they have been struggling with this year. They must pass key financing bills; untangle a dispute over a controversial balanced-budget plan; and deal with a massive tax overhaul, the farm bill, and the expired Superfund program for cleaning up hazardous waste.
Even more than usual, Congress is in the position of the student who fell behind in courses and must cram a year's worth of work into the last days. The last-minute rush is extraordinary this year, because the lawmakers are tackling complex, major issues -- a tax rewrite plus a whole new federal budget concept -- within the last few months.
A House GOP aide concedes that ``Republicans are mostly to blame'' for the backup, because ``we threw down the gauntlet.''
First, the President offered the challenge to rewrite the tax code, a herculean task under the best of conditions.
Then Senate Republicans followed this fall with a dramatic new balanced-budget plan. Since that proposal was introduced, most major bills have come to a standstill.
``It's the Congress coming to grips with the fiscal policy of the country,'' says the House leadership aide, citing concern over federal budget deficits as the single cause of the logjam in Congress.
Except for the tax bill, all of the major pending legislation is partly hung up by deficit disputes. At the core of the struggle is the balanced-budget proposal, usually called Gramm-Rudman for its original co-sponsors, Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire.
The proposal attempts to force the federal government to balance its budget within four or five years. If Congress fails to meet deficit targets, the President would be required to make across-the-board spending cuts.
Negotiators for the House and Senate will return to talks this week amid bipartisan predictions that they will reach agreement on the Gramm-Rudman measure. Their task remains daunting: They must satisfy House Democrats (who want to protect antipoverty programs and medicare) and the Reagan administration (which demands protection for the defense buildup).
Administration negotiators are seeking a compromise which, according to a congressional source, would include defense cuts but give President Reagan greater leeway in making the reductions.
The Gramm-Rudman talks, which have been going on behind the scenes for weeks, are ``leading toward an eventual agreement,'' says a Democratic House aide involved in the negotiating.
Only after the Gramm-Rudman issue is resolved will the way be cleared for passage of the bill to raise the national debt ceiling to the historic high of $2 trillion. The federal government is due to run out of borrowing authority about Dec. 12 unless Congress completes the debt-ceiling extension.
Although the huge tax-rewrite bill has won the nod from the House Ways and Means Committee, it has also been caught in the deficit-reduction mood. Because the bill is aimed at being ``revenue neutral'' and thus having little effect on deficits, most lawmakers have hardly focused on the issue. They say constituents are far more interested in reducing red ink than changing the tax code.
The full House is expected to take up the tax bill in the middle of this month, when support from the administration will probably be the key to its future.
Meanwhile, a House-Senate conference committee will have to work out a compromise on another major issue, the farm bill.
Both houses have passed versions of the bill, and federal cost is the decisive issue, with both versions aiming to reduce the federal role in the agriculture market.
Despite the proposed changes, the farm program emerging is expected to be the most expensive ever because of growing crop surpluses. The Reagan administration has been threatening a veto if the cost exceeds $50 billion for four years.
Also facing a possible veto is a deficit-reduction package, known as a ``reconciliation'' bill, pending in Congress.
Although both House and Senate versions include important spending cuts, they would also continue a 16-cent federal cigarette tax that President Reagan opposes. Negotiators are trying to iron out the disagreement, but, meanwhile, the federal government loses some of the savings that were to take place beginning with the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
Renewal of the Superfund program to clean up hazardous-waste dumps also faces a veto threat, since it includes new taxes as well as significant federal spending. The House is expected to work on its version of the bill this week. The Senate has passed a Superfund bill.
In one of the few issues that does not revolve around the federal deficit, the two houses will probably send to the Oval Office a textile import-quota bill that is a response to the United States trade deficit. Both houses have passed related legislation.
Rep. Dan Rosten-kowski (D) of Illinois, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is seeking House approval of the Senate-passed version, which would speed the bill to the White House, where it is almost certain to be branded as ``protectionist'' and vetoed.