AT 4:15 P.M. WEDNESDAY, panic reigned in Room 2174 of the Rayburn House Office Building. Everyone was in a state of near exhaustion. For the fourth time in a week, the minority staff of the House Education and Labor Committee had been asked to rework its portion of Gramm-Latta II, the long-heralded Republican reconciliation bill.

Time was running out. The phone rang. It was Bill Pitts from the office of House GOP leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) He needed to get the bill to the printer. "Give us 20 more minutes," minority staff director Charles Radcliffe told him.

Sandra Glover, Radcliffe's administrative assistant, was cutting and pasting at her desk. Beth Berman, another staffer, punched at a pocket calculator in one corner, revising budget figures. Four other aides frantically paged through huge stacks of paper.

Radcliffe sank into the couch, penciling changes in the bill. To meet complaints from Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), he changed the words "educationally deprived" on page 69 to "children from low-income families" -- to make sure the extra bucks don't head toward rich kids who happen to be doing poorly in school. Rep. Margaret M. Heckler (R-Mass.) was worried about programs for women, so Radcliffe added some words making it clear that provisions of the Woman's Equity Act of 1978 would not be effected by the bill.

"You want to know how it's been the last couple weeks?" asked Jennifer Vance, another aide. "It's been like this constantly."

This was the congressional reconciliation process at work, a process that strained much of the behind-the-scenes machinery of Congress to a near breaking point last week as it rapidly attempted perhaps the most extensive changes in government since World War II. In doing so, it raised serious questions -- from both Republicans and Democrats -- about the resulting legislation, which few congressman even had a chance to read before they voted. l

The pressure was immense. "I've been here 20 years, through Adam Clayton Powell, OEO and all the rest," said Radcliffe, a large man with a high forehead and thinning red hair. "But I've never seen anything like this."

The stakes were monumental. The reconciliation package was the longest and broadest piece of legislation ever considered by Congress. "The very viability of Congress as an element of government," as well as the budgets of hundreds of federal programs, hung in the balance, said House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.).

"I'm in charge of a giant number factory here," James L. Blum said in his cluttered office in the old FBI building at 2nd and D Street SW. "It's like we have our own assembly line here. What we worry about is keeping the quality up."

It's been a big season for our factory," he continued with a wry smile. "We've had a lot of demand for our products, and we've been moving them off the line in record time."

Blum, a tall, slender man, a jogger who hangs his blue running shorts and white mesh running shirt in his office window, is assistant director of budget analysis at the Congressional Budget Office. He and about three dozen other CBO analysis have worked days, nights, and almost every weekend since January on budget matters.

Their role in the reconciliation process has been critical. In a game where numbers are politics and politics in numbers, they set the baseline to measure everything by, in effect, the rules of the game.

In a game where numbers are everything, they then became the official scorekeepers, the people who separated the numbers from the rhetoric and decided who cut what where.

Their volume of production would impress any factory supervisor. CBO estimates it will use 8 million pages of computer printouts this year. That's an average of some 31,000 pages every working day, or enough to supply Congress with 400 million lines of numbers. It will take 25 tons of paper, enough to consume 425 trees.

As a group, the CBO scorekeepers are an impressive lot, serious, responsible people with master's degrees and PhDs in economics, business administration and public policy. They are accustomed to frenzy. Congress, after all, normally operates in spurts and stops, recessing often and long.What was unusual this year was the massiveness of the reconciliation process, a process few in Washington totally understand. It touched virtually every nook and cranny of government, and it did so under an incredibly tight timetable.

Since last month, when Congress approved overall budget-cutting targets, each House and Senate committee has had to decide exactly where to make these cuts. This was rife with political infighting, pitting Republicans against Democrats, pet program against pet program. Where did they turn for advice and numbers? The CBO number factory, of course.

"The people I relate to best are short-order cooks," said Bob Sunshine, 36, one of Blum's deputies. "We're working for the House. We're working for the Senate. We're working for 28 committees. We're working for the Republicans and the Democrats. Everybody has an order, and everybody wants his order in an hour."

The tension over the budget cuts had been building for months, like a giant dust storm in the west, through the inauguration, David Stockman's black book, the battle over the first budget and all the skirmishing since.

When the committees finally got to work during the last month, Stockman was worrried. He set up an operation headquarters in the second floor of the Old Executive Office Building. It was alternately called the "Rec (for reconciliation) Room" and the "War Room." Desk officers from the Office of Management and Budget were assigned there to monitor the work of each congressional committee. Each day they issued a report of about 50 pages on what had happened.

It may have looked rather simple to the distant, casual observer. Fourteen Republican-controlled Senate committees had reported cuts totaling $39.6 billion; their Democratic-controlled House counterparts reported cuts of $37.7 billion.

But blue smoke and mirrors were all over the place. The battle was over perception as much as reality. The Reagan administration cast it this way: You were either for the president and economic recovery, or you were against it. Cool deliberation took a back seat.

"I don't think most members comprehend the magnitude of what is going on here," California Rep. Leon Panetta, who headed the Democrats' reconciliation task force, said late one night. "It's unfortunate how much is decided on perceptions. The reality is most members aren't aware of the pieces, or the impact of what they are doing. This is a dangerous game we're playing. We have to be careful we aren't locking up the Congress for three years and throwing the key away."

Panetta candidly admitted he had not read the entire Democratic reconciliation package, and he doubted anyone else had either. As for the Republican House substitute, known as Gramm-Latta II, as late as 4:45 p.m. Wednesday it was still only a collection of Xeroxed pieces of paper in the hands of Bill Pitts, House Minority Leader Michel's chief budget aide, and he was in a frenzy.

Pitts, whose father worked in Congress 41 years, had been working nonstop for weeks. "I never want to go through anything like this agains," he complained wearily.

Republicans were in much better shape in the Senate. But even there it would have been virtually impossible to comprehend what was in the package. The bill an 406 pages, the Senate Budget Committee Report on it 1,034 pages.

Pieces of the House bill had been floating around for days, and OMB, part of the executive had issued what it called Gramm-Latta 1 1/2 a couple days before. This version had angered many Republicans, including diehard Reagan supporters.

"We waited and waited for the package," said the House Education and Labor Committee's Radcliffe. "When it finally came, it was a combination of Stockman, the White House, and the Department of Education. I'm a great admirer of David Stockman. But what we got was good ideology, but poor legislation. It was completely useless. We all would have been fired if we had let it out."

Many of those most deeply involved in the reconciliation process are deeply distraught about it. There was simply much to do in too short of a time. Congress simply didn't have time to do a good job. Substance gave way to symbolism.

"The old saying is if you want it bad you get it bad . . . It forced so much to be done in such a short time it can't all be good legislation, no matter how well everyone is motivated," said one respected Hill aide.

The normal checks and balances weren't allowed to work. There were few hearings, Little public debate on specifics. Many lobbyists stayed away from the process. "This was so big they couldn't get a handle on it," said another key staff assistant.

"Normally this package would be 100 different bills, and Congress would spend months on each one," said still another staff member, looking at a stack of documents on his coffee table. "What you have here is a big horse pill and they want you to swallow it all at once."

At 11:30 a.m. Thursday, the Senate and House were in session, and the phones were rining at the Congressional Budget Office. Richard Brandon, an aide to Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), was trying to cut a deal with the Senate's Republican leadership to get more money for Cuban and Haitian refugees, most of whom live in Florida.

Brandon wanted to funnel several million dollars budgeted for state employment services into the refugee program. He was pushing hard. He told Chuck Seagraves, the top analyst in CBO's human resorces division, that he needed numbers and needed them fast. Seagraves was trying to do a half dozen other things at the same time, but he said he would see what he could do.

"This is what we do here," Seagraves said, hanging up the phone. These people are desperate. They want to make deals, and the only way they can make them is if they have the numbers. And they don't just want any numbers -- they want numbers that prove their case."

Chiles, Brandon's boss, succeeded. Under a unanimous consent agreement, the Senate added $54 million to the refugee program. It was a great victory, the senator's office said. The employment service people will never know what happened to them.