When Don Edwards arrived in Washington in 1963 as a liberal freshman Democratic congressman from California, the House Rules Committee was a graveyard for the kind of legislation Edwards held dear.

Now it strikes him as a much more congenial place. Edwards just hopes it's still a reliable graveyard.

The bill he and not a few allies want to bury has been kicking around for years. It would re-create the old House Internal Security Committee, once known as the House Un-American Activities Committee. The bill has never come to a vote on the House floor, but this year, its enemies lament and its sponsors agree, it might have a chance.

"I think we can win the vote if we can bring it to a vote," says Rep. Larry McDonald (D-Ga.), the principal advocate of the measure. "We have about 50 cosponsors now and I think we should get about 200. We also have a lot of people who say, 'I'll vote for it, but don't ask me to sponsor it, don't ask me to put my name on it.' So there's no question of the support for it."

Edwards, one of the leaders in the prolonged fight to abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, agrees with a grimace.

"There's really a strong tendency to go back to the bad old days," he told assorted liberals, dissenters and civil libertarians who had gathered in a Capitol Hill townhouse recently to deplore the changing times.

The session had been called by the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, which was born in 1960 as the National Committee to Abolish HUAC and, by its own account, was immediately labeled a "Communist plot" for its work back then. Hundreds of invitations had reportedly been sent out for the get-together. About 60 people came. It looked and sounded very much like a meeting of an endangered species.

Protested NCARL national director Esther Herst:

"What we have now is a government that's talking about getting off the people's backs when it comes to helping people who need it . . . in terms of health care and food and transportation . . . and keeping the government very much on the people's backs when it comes to political activities and spying and watching what people are doing on a day-to-day basis."

The watchword for the new mood, however one characterizes it, is terrorism. The issue is the degree of Soviet and surrogate support for it around the world and the dangers of its escalation here. Presisdent Reagan has already expressed concern about it, prompting the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. intelligence community to begin drafting a new executive order that could make it easier to spy on Americans at home and abroad.

And at the State Department, Secretary Alexander M. Haig Jr. has proclaimed that "international terrorism will take the place of human rights" as a chief concern of U.S. foreign policy. He said terrorism had become "rampant" on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and he accused the Soviet "Union of conscious policies and programs to "foster, support and expand this activity" throughout the world.

The charges have served to underline a mounting number of calls to revive the old national-security apparatus that worked so assiduously years ago to root out the "subversives" in American society. In the House, the theme has been captured in a letter signed by Rep. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) that the Council for Inter-American Security has been sending out, calling for support of the "anti-terrorism bill" he is cosponsoring.

"Ronald Reagan needs your support now more than ever", the letter begains. "He needs your help in closing America's 'open door' to bomb-throwers, spies and revolutionaries."

This was so, Crane said, because "the liberals have ripped apart our internal security systems" by the abolition of the House International Security Committee. "For all we know," he warned, "terrorists are plotting subversive, "terrorists are plotting subversive attacks right under our noses. And our hand are tied by the liberals."

Calling for support of the "antiterrorism bill" -- actually McDonald's resolution re-creating the committee -- Crane said it would be "a crucial tool in cracking down on terrorists."

The mailing was a big success, according to a Crane spokesman, with more than a million copies sent out. Some 100,000 replies -- still to be tabulated -- to an enclosed "Internal Security Public Opinion Survey" came back. Among the questions:

"In your opinion, should we crack down harder on revolutinary groups already inside our borders?"

The answers, in case anyone should doubt what they will be, will be announced at a May 1 swminar on Capitol Hill on the need for resurrecting the House Internal Security Committee, which the House voted to abolish in 1975.

Crane's hometown paper, the Danville (Ill.) Commercial-News, disapproved of the proposed revival in a Feb. 2 editorial, recalling the Un-American Activities Committee's history of excesses, under the headline, "New Witch Hunts Not the Answer." But then, as Crane's office makes clear, Pravda also disapproved, in a Feb. 20 article headlined "back to McCarthyism."

Crane complained in his mailing that "here at home, terrorist bombings have already killed dozens fo Americans." He repeated that point in a letter to the editor of the Danville paper, after observing that "over 1,200 bombings occurred in the U.S. just last year." He protested that "the hands of the FBI are tied by constraints that prevent them from investigating a terrorist group until they know the group is about to commit a violent act."

FBI officials, however, have declared repeatedly that their domestic security guildelines, imposed after the disclosure of years of investigative abuses, "have served us reasonably well over the past four or five years." They have also quietly switched to more permissive counterintelligence guidelines for terrorist investigations of groups targested against foreign powers, such as the anti-Castro Omega 7 organization.

The FBI's executive assistant director for investigations, Francis M. (Bud) Mullen Jr., said in an interview that his agents have been able to block a significant amount of terrorist activity over the past year, including assassinations that were being planned by several groups against foreign targets in this country.

"We're convinced we've saved a lot of lives," Mullen declared.

The FBI official feels that terrorist attacks in the United States have increased in severity over the past two years, with more "direct efforts to take a life" instead of wreaking property damage, but that the number of incidents has dropped steadily. There were, for example, 20 terrorist bombings and bombings attempts in this country last year compared with 42 in 1979, 52 in 1978 and 100 in 1977. No one died as a result of any of last year's bombings, according to FBI statistics.

Asked what Crane meant when he referred to the "dozens of Americans dead" from terrorist bombings, the congressman's press secretary, Bill Mencarow, said Crane had been speaking of incidents such as an explosion in a baggage claim area at New York's LaGuardia Airport. That blast, attributed to the Palestine Liberation Organization, killed 12 people and wounded about 70.

It also took place more than five years ago, on Dec. 29, 1975.

In any case, the FBI says it has no evidence of Soviet involvement in terrorist acts in this country.

"We have not established a link," Mullen says. "We have not discovered evidence which would support that contention."

There is evidence of such a link on a worldwide basis, according to knowledgeable government officials, but not, some say, as clear-cut as Secretary Haig has proclaimed in stating that the Russians have been "training, funding and equipping" international terrorists as part of a conscious policy.

On that score, the CIA concluded in a recent -- and instantly controversial -- draft that there was circumstantial evidence, but not of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt variety. In short, it disagreed with Haig. The draft, the preliminary version of a so-called National Intelligence Estimate, is now in the process of being reviewed, revised and perhaps amended.

Back in 1976, when Gerald Ford was president, the CIA issued its first public study of terrorism. It concluded then that Moscow's posture towards terrorists -- unlike unabashed proponents of revolutionary violence such as Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi -- was "ambiguous."

The study described the Soviets as somewhat reluctant supporters of "fedayeen groups" starting through intermediaries in 1969 after a period of hesitancy that was overcome by "broader interests" such as the Kremlin's adversary relationship with Peking.

The report also cited Moscow's longstanding policy of bringing Third World revolutionaries to the Soviet Union for training and indoctrination and it said there was "considerable circumstantial [italics in the report] evidence linking Moscow to various terrorist formations in Europe." But it also said the Soviets had had "serious misgivings about the utility" and often adverse that "the true dimensions of Soviet involvement remain extremely difficult to ascertain."

Since then, government sources say, the Soviets have gotten more enmeshed.

"I think there is solid evidence of Soviet financing, training, equipping and flow of arms to Libya, Iraq, Cuba and the PLO," says one official. "There is also evidence of East German and Czechoslovak training of additional countries. There is no hard evidence [of Soviet links] to the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades or the Italian Red Army."

Another problem is one of definitions. Some studies, such as the draft National Intelligence Estimate disputing Haig, do not count so-called "wars of national liberation" such as those producing the widespread terrorism in a number of Latin American countries, sources say.

No matter what the definition, worldwide terrorism has been increasing in severity, and Americans -- primarily businessmen and diplomats -- remain a primary target. U.S. citizens wer involved in 40 percent of the terrorist attacks around the world last year. Ten Americans were killed and 94 wounded.

As the 1976 CIA-sponsored study pointed out, however, "comparisons with 'normal' levels of domestic violence in the U.S. may also be useful" in keeping the problem in perspective. For instance, the report pointed out, there were 20,000 homicides in the United States in 1975, compared to the 800 killed in terrorism all over the world in the eight years from 1968 to 1975.

As for the cost of terrorist-caused property damage and ransom payments, the study said, "all indications are that it falls far short of the half-billion-dollar loss suffered to school vandals in the U.S. each year." The report suggested that the biggest dimension of the terrorist problem was its disruptive impact -- magnified by the publicity accorded such incidents -- on national governments and international relations.

In the view of Rep. Edwards and others at the NCARL meeting, all this is hardly justification for restoration of the House Internal Security Committee. It would have full authority, under McDonald's resolution, to investigate any groups, foreign or domestic, "their members, agents and affiliates" which seek the overthrow "or alteration of" the U.S. government "by any unlawful means." It would also be able to call back all the old files of the old Un-American Activities or Internal Security committees, now stored under lock and key at the National Archives.

Some liberals see this as a much more ominous prospect than the existence of the new Senate subcommittee on terrorism, at least for the moment. The Senate subcommittee chairman, Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), "has been reassuring everybody that they're not another HUAC over there," says American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Jerry Berman. "But in the House, it's clear what they're doing."

"The roots of terrorism lie within a society," Edwards, who is chairman of the House civil and constitutional rights subcommittee, told the audience. "It's not a great threat, in the United States. . . . Terrorism is 17th now on the FBI's list of priorities."

Edwards was still plainly worried. "We are prone to national panics in this country," he said. "And I'm afraid I see on the horizon some kind of hysteria about terrorism. . . . We have to work very hard to make sure the American people keep a cool head about terrorism. Because it's very likely to be used politically as a scarce scheme."

McDonald hopes to demonstrate otherwise to show that "this is not a fly-by-night issue, that it's got a lot of support."

"The groups supporting this include the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the International Association of Police Chiefs," McDonald declared. "It's not something that's a figment of somebody's imagination."