It was a quintessential Washington scene: a senator demanding action, the White House stalling and two top ranking officials politely sparring within the limits imposed by the Reagan administration. Behind it all was a classic turf battle.

The issue before the Senate Government Affairs Committee yesterday was control of America's trade policy. Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) wants trade policy placed in a new "lean and mean" Department of Trade and Commerce.

Roth attacked as a "two-headed monster" the present setup--which he said creates an "irrational division of responsibility" between the White House's Office of the Special Trade Representative and the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, who act as the lead players among the 25 different agencies that have a voice on trade policy.

"There is a turf war," continued Roth. "You have two bureaucracies, both fighting." He added that the turf fight is mitigated only by the fact that Trade Representative William E. Brock and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige get along well together.

The battle, however, has engaged lower echelon officials, their constituencies in the private sector and rival committees on Capitol Hill. Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's trade subcommittee, warned that the turf battle can mask the substantive issues of trade, and that moving boxes around on an organizational chart will do little to erase America's growing trade deficit.

Brock denied that his office and the Commerce Department are fighting and insisted that the U.S. speaks with only one voice on trade policy--the president's. He added, moreover, that trade issues cut across so many departments that it would be impossible for any one agency to determine trade policy without government-wide consultations.

"There's a clear division of authority," Baldrige said. "The U.S. Trade Representative has all the glamorous work of trade negotiating and setting policy while the Commerce Department does all the work."

Hinting at his own dissatisfaction with the manner in which trade is treated in the government, the Commerce secretary said the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has a congressional mandate to act as an "honest broker" between government agencies with specific trade axes to grind. But that leaves trade without an advocate in the highest counsels of government, he added.

"The Treasury Department doesn't act as an honest broker for trade. It thinks first about revenue gains and losses," Baldrige said. Neither do the Defense or State departments, which are concerned about military and foreign policy implications of trade issues.

"The USTR as an honest broker is different from taking a leadership role," Baldrige continued most politely.

Although he didn't say so yesterday, Baldrige clearly doesn't like the Roth approach--which would use USTR as the nucleus of a new Department of Trade and strip Commerce of its powerful voice--but instead favors changes that would increase his department's authority in the area.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng kept a studied silence through it all. The farm lobby is so powerful that no one dares challenge it by attempting to take agricultural trade issues from the Agriculture Department, and his testimony showed that he likes this position. He also indicated support for the continued independence of the USTR, which Lyng said "has played a key role" in winning administration support for the trade initiatives of Agriculture Secretary John Block.

Prior to the sparring, both Brock and Baldrige, in almost identical language, expressed the White House's inability to make choices in the turf battle. The administration, said Brock, "is undecided as to whether a change in our trade organization is appropriate at this time."

"We are looking at many options, and we have all our options open," Baldrige said.

Roth said he was "greatly disappointed" by the White House statement and added, "If I close my eyes I would be sitting back four years in the Carter days . . . when the administration then said the time is not ripe" for trade reorganization.

He asked Brock and Baldrige to tell the White House policymakers that "it's important they get their act together."