Even before Pete Domenici introduced his bill to require barge operators to pay for using government-built waterways, the senator from New Mexico had a nagging feeling that his measure, S. 790, might not be long for this world.

He could introduce the bill, all right, but that formality was barely a first step toward passage. About 1,000 bills are introduced in the Senate each year; fewer than 10 per cent progress to a committee hearing.

Domenici was worried - and with good reason - that that roadblock might be the death of his bill, too.

If Domenici were to call his waterway fee a "tax" - which might prove the easiest way to collect the money - the bill would be assigned to the Senate Finance Committee.

But Finance Committee Chairman Russell B.Long (D-La.) is an implacable foe of waterway charges in any form. Domenici knew that Long could find several years' worth of other bills to consider before he would schedule a hearing on S. 790.

So it was quickly decided that a bargemen's fee would not be called a "tax." Instead, it would be an "inland waterways charge."

That language would almost surely throw the bill to the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction, under Senate rules, over "inland waterways (except construction)."

Commerce Committee Chairman Warren G. Maynuson (D-Wash) was perhaps not as harshly disposed toward waterway charges as Long was Domenici knew, but he wasn't particularly favorable to the idea either. Further, the chairman of the appropriate subcommittee of Commerce was none other than Russell Long.

The most congenial spot for S. 790 would be Domenici's Public Works Committee. Domenici has good relations with Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), who chairs Public Works' Water Resources Subcommittee, and he was confident that Gravel would agree to hold hearings on waterway charges.

Further, a majority of the Gravel subcommittee and the full Public Works Committee had approved a user charge plan that Domenici proposed late in the 94th Congress. (That bill died in parliamentary skirmishing on the Senate floor.)

The problem was in the rules. There seemed almost no way to stretch them to bring S. 790 to the public Works Committee.

But Domencici had an idea.

The Senate's first majot item of business this year was a major reorganization of its committees and their jurisdiction. Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson (D-Ill.) had worked long and hard on a reorganization plan but had run into stiff opposition on the Senate floor.

Domenici guessed that Stevenson would be willing to agree to almost anything to save votes to his plan. On the afternoon of Feb. 3, Domenici went loping over to the Senate floor to engage Stevenson in a "colloguy," as the senators call it, to create some "legislative history" that would circumvent the rules.

"Would the senators yield?" Domenici asked, and Stevenson graciously surrendered the floor.

Would'nt it make sense, Domenici said, if the user-charge legislation went to Public Works Committee? "I agree," Stevenson replied. "It appears to me that is logical."

With a quick grin, Domenici slipped off the floor and went back to regale his staff with the story of his triumph.

But first-term Republicans in a heavily Democratic Senate should never be too quick about claming victory. Domenici had not counted on Murray Zweben, the savvy Senate parliamentarian who decides the committee assignment for each Senate bill.

"I saw that colloguy with Stevenson," Zweben said later. "I knew what they were up to. You don't think these guys can fool me with some canned legislative history, do you?"

Thus on Feb. 24, when Domenici formally introduced S. 790, Zweben took a compromise route: he assigned the bill jointly to the Public Works and Commerce committees. Domenici's ploy to maneuver past Magnuson had apparently failed.

As if that weren't enough, S. 790 suffered a more serious blow a week later.

In January, 1976, the Ford administration, like most administrations before it, had concluded that considerations ofnequity and economy required that barge operators pay a toll for using the waterways. In a message to Congress, Ford promised "quickly" to send a user charge bill to Capitol Hill.

What with one thing and another, Ford didn't get around to sending up the bill until Jan. 19, 1977, the day before he left office. In accordance with protocol, Magnuson, as chairman of the Commerce Committee, agreed to introduce the Ford bill.

Magnuson brought the bill to the floor on March 4. Zweben was not present then, and an assistant parliamentarian, unfamiliar with the joint assignment given S. 790, assigned this bill to Magnuson's Commerce Committee.

"We started jumping around a little when that happened," said Lee Rawls, a Domenici staff aide. "The joint referral had not been acceptable, because Public Works could at least go ahead and hold hearings. But with the administration bill assigned just to Commerce, it looked like we couldn't start anything."

Rawls took the problem to Hal Brayman, another Domenici staffer, who had some contacts on the Commerce Committee staff. Brayman immediately undertook telephone negotiations, and he discovered a surprising development.

Although Magnuson and some other Commerce members would probably oppose a user-charge bill, most of the committee staff seemed to think Domenici's paln was an overdue change.

Accordingly, a staff-to-staff agreement was worked out. Magnuson would go back to the floor and have the Ford administration bill jointly assigned, as S. 790 has been. Public Works could then proceed with its hearings, and Commerce members would not raise a point of order challenging Public Works' right to report a user charge bill to the floor.

For the moment, at least, S 790 was still alive.