AFTER Republicans march in and officially seize control of Capitol Hill next January, the fiercest debates may center not on taxes and spending but on right and wrong.
Conservatives are eager to counterattack a Congress they perceive as long dominated by 1960's-style counterculture values.
School prayer is but the tip of their agenda. Tax support for AIDS patients, government arts funding, family-planning services - the right may question many programs on moral as well as economic grounds.
Some Republicans fear that an obsession with ``McGoverniks'' and issues such as abortion could alienate moderate voters and paint the GOP as the thin-lipped party of the prim. But to true believers, nothing less than the fate of the United States itself is at stake.
``We have to simply, calmly, methodically reassert American civilization,'' said House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia when outlining plans after the election. Says Gary Bauer, a former Reagan official who is now head of the Family Research Council: ``Only a virtuous people can remain free.''
Such talk may contain a tincture of political rhetoric. Even conservatives concede a full-blown culture war is not about to rage through the streets of Washington.
After President Reagan took office, the Republican social agenda gradually faded from view, while fiscal policies continued to dominate headlines. Something similar may happen upon the ascendance of Speaker Ginrich and majority leader Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas.
Washington debate on one hot-key issue, however - school prayer - has already progressed past the state it reached in the early 1980s. Rep. Gingrich has promised the House will take up a constitutional amendment on school prayer, in some form, by summer.
Organized school prayer remains highly controversial in the US. Even a measure mandating a school-day moment of reflection could run into stiff legislative opposition.
``But the fact that it is even being discussed is particularly encouraging,'' says Janet Parshall, special assistant to the president at the pro-prayer group Concerned Women for America. ``It tells me that in this culture conflict, there is a shift in values.''
Conservative activists and Republican House staff members have a lengthy list of values-oriented measures they hope to bring up after the flurry of GOP ``Contract with America'' votes expected in the first 100 days. At the top of their slate is privatizing those perennial Republican targets, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In a budget era so tight the US Botanical Gardens may find it hard to grow flowers, why, ask conservatives rhetorically, should taxpayers pay $14,700 for New York's Urban Bush Women Inc. to develop an opera called ``Fur On The Belly''? Other values-list items include reexamination of the Ryan White program to aid AIDS patients, another look at the Americans with Disabilities Act to see if it contains perceived undue regulatory burdens, and a national law denying educational benefits to illegal immigrants. GOP congressional leaders have downplayed suggestions that abortion will figure in their early legislative plans, although there could be an attempt to revive the rule barring federally funded family-planning counselors from discussing abortion as an option.
Hits many issues
GOP leaders are also cloaking some of their fiscal policies in rights-and-values clothing. Of Republican welfare-reform proposals stricter than Clinton counterparts, Mr. Gingrich has said ``caring for people is not synonymous with taking care of people.''
Even Job 1 of the Republican agenda, tax cuts, has its moral aspect, according to conservatives. With a lighter tax burden, many parents will be able to work less and spend more time with their children, goes this reasoning. Reluctant working mothers, in particular, may be able to drop their jobs and stay home.
``The demands government places on families have weakened them,'' says Kate O'Beirne, vice president at the Heritage Foundation. ``The lowest per-capita income group in America is families with children.''
The Democrats left in Washington fully understand that an attempt to portray them as the rear guard of the Woodstock generation is looming. President Clinton has warned that ``this whole values debate'' is going to intensify.
But the sharpest scraps over culture may first occur in the GOP itself. Some Republicans, particularly those in the Senate, see an attempt to link Clinton with the days of beads and bell-bottoms as a colossal waste of time.
They worry that school prayer, for instance, could become the GOP equivalent of Clinton's gays-in-the-military problem - a peripheral policy that threatens to define them as extremists. Gingrich, for all his talk about a White House controlled by the counterculture, has steered his troops toward an early focus on only Contract with America items.
``Americans didn't vote Republican because they wanted prayer in the schools or because they're pro-life,'' says GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. ``They want Republicans to address issues like crime.''
Mr. Newhouse thinks his party will be able to avoid the peripheral-issues trap that slowed Clinton in his first months in power. ``I'm confident we're not going to make the same mistakes the Democrats did,'' he says. ``We'll make different ones probably.''