No news was bad news yesterday on Capitol Hill, where it was rather like waiting in a duck blind. A mirthful TV newsman, taken with the ennui, cupped his hand around a plastic duck-caller and went "quack, quack."
Few who heard the quacking outside the Senate chamber thought it was funny. This lame-duck Congress, waiting most of the day on a conference committee to work out differences on the gasoline tax-highway bill, was in danger of simply going poof and vanishing.
With the continuing resolution signed by President Reagan and all else fading in the face of the holidays, members were leaving town, quorum possibilities were thinning and those who remained were entertaining themselves with monotonic oratory in a Senate chamber that was empty most of the day.
The Senate chaplain, the Rev. Richard C. Halverson, who often has a feeling for these things, opened the session with a prayer that could stand as a report on the 97th Congress.
"We have done some things that ought not to have been done and we have failed to do some things we ought to have done, but they cannot be changed now. We have felt some things and said some things about each other that have been less than loving and we pray that they may not be a source of alienation," Halverson said.
At the end, everyone said amen.
The chaplain could have been alluding to that very unfraternal feud between Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). Stevens yesterday apologized on the floor for bitingly personal remarks he had made in the wee hours of Tuesday. And then they nearly got into it all over again.
Their first contretemps had come at the end of a grueling session over the highway bill, when a small group of conservative Republicans had kept the Senate stalemated for hours. Feelings were running high, and no one was very happy.
During that ordeal, Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) sat at his desk on the Senate floor addressing Christmas cards and pasting daintily licked stamps on the envelopes. Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) autographed copies of his new book of Washington photographs. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), ignoring a ban on electronic devices, worked a little hand calculator at his seat.
Stevens and Metzenbaum threw verbal darts after Stevens -- facetiously, he said -- announced he wanted to call up a version of a bill that would turn over the federally owned Alaska Railroad to his home state. Metzenbaum for months has blocked the giveaway but recently has shown a willingness to compromise.
Metzenbaum came rushing back onto the floor and back they went at each other. Stevens yesterday apologized, but he warned that he would use every legal step at his command to win passage of the railroad bill as well as another one that would provide antitrust exemptions to certain ocean shippers. Metzenbaum wanted to stop both measures.
But these things have a way of being worked out. The two senators last night reached a compromise on the Alaska Railroad that does not give the line to the state but sets up procedures for assessing its real value -- a central point in the controversy. Under the agreement, the U.S. Railway Association will do the study and Alaska will have the option of purchasing the railroad at its assessed value.
Before the Senate passed the gasoline-tax measure and sent it to conference, the legislation was footnoted with amendments that otherwise had slim chances of passage, including a huge bailout of tax liabilities for three California utilities.
The House earlier had passed $2.2 billion in federal tax relief for Pacific Telephone, General Telephone and Southern California Gas. The legislation resulted from a conflict between the Internal Revenue Service and the state public utilities commission. But the gist of it was that IRS said the firms owed that much in back taxes.
California's House delegation lined up behind the exemption bill, but it ran into trouble in the Senate, mainly from Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.). He finally dropped his opposition and the Senate decided to direct the companies to pay only $412 million of the $2.2 billion. That then became a subject of the House-Senate conference.
It survived in the compromise version of the bill passed by the House last night and sent to the Senate.
Right up to the closing bell, they were introducing bills and resolutions. No one, of course, expects that they will get anywhere at this time of year, but it's the gesture that counts.
Among the last-minute gestures was a resolution by Rep. Frank J. Guarini (D-N.J.), who wants President Reagan to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dr. Barney B. Clark, the now-celebrated dentist who for nearly three weeks has been functioning with an artificial heart.
And while kudos was being handed out, some of his buddies in the Senate took time to celebrate the endurance record of Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who last week cast his 8,000th consecutive Senate roll-call vote--a record.
"It is not a matter that should go unnoticed," said Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).
In its pell-mell rush to cut federal spending, Congress last year decided to phase out certain Social Security benefits for about 100,000 surviving spouses and children of military personnel. There was, predictably, a loud cry of alarm from the beneficiaries.
As part of the continuing resolution that became law yesterday, that situation was rectified. The Senate settled the matter by adopting a proposal by Sens. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) to reinstate the benefits and have them paid out of the Defense Department budget.
"To cut off these benefits is something that any compassionate government with understanding would not want to do," Quayle said. "It was a mistake."
Ah, those mistakes.
As the Rev. Halverson said in his prayer yesterday: "In the spirit of this holiday which celebrates love and peace, may we be forgiven and may we forgive and forget, as we anticipate a new Congress, with fresh opportunity to fulfill our promises to the people and the responsibilities mandated by our positions."