The juiciest, the most flamboyant, the most controversial legislative gambits of a closing Congress often occur by dark of night, and so it was early yesterday morning when the House played an encore for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Senate had earlier added an amendment to the continuing resolution that absolved the center of $33 million in past interest debt to the federal treasury on its parking garage and waived millions of dollars of future interest as well.

Rep. Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.) was angry about that because, as he put it, taxpayers ought not to have to subsidize the cultural pleasures of the capital. He planned an ambush when the resolution came back to the House floor late Wednesday.

But by early yesterday, when he called for a roll-call vote on a compromise he and Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) offered, Molinari realized that the deck was stacked against him. The Treasury Department had sent every member a night letter urging support of the bailout and enclosed with it a similar letter signed by House Democratic and Republican leaders.

When time expired on the roll call, Molinari appeared to have a three-vote victory. The chair, however, left the rolls open, and enough members switched position to defeat him, 185 to 178.

"It was not unexpected, with the administration and the leadership lined up against us," Molinari said yesterday.

That episode aside, the 98th Congress didn't quite steal away into the night. Rather, it just seemed to slip off in a cloud of ennui yesterday.

The usually decorous office of Senate Appropriations Committee staff chief Keith Kennedy was strewn with the hundreds of pages of the resolution. Some even festooned the elegant chandelier.

"We've been liberated," Kennedy said. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) posed amid the rubble for photographs.

It was a day for adding those final grace notes -- the quotable quote for hometown preelection consumption, the production-line passage of scores of resolutions and conference agreements that may or may not affect history.

Sen. John P. East (R-N.C.), for example, spent some time excoriating Congress for the "disgrace" of curbing U.S. funding of the "contras" who are rebelling against the Nicaraguan government.

East charged his colleagues with a dismal lack of leadership. His quotable quote: "The average American doesn't know the difference between a contra and a caterpillar. The average American doesn't know the difference between a Sandinista and a sardine."

Another quotable quote came from Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) as he went into a House-Senate conference that was hung up over funding formulas for dozens of highway "demonstration" projects. In an aside spoken in Spanish to a bystander, the senator said, "Estos proyectos de veras son puerco."

Translation: "These projects are truly pork."

The projects included one offered up by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who wanted $12.5 million to "demonstrate" the novel idea of connecting an island (Isle of Palms) to a mainland (South Carolina) with . . . a bridge.

Oh, yes, Congress can say "no" when it wants to. Witness what happened to the nice little gesture the House tried to make toward Rep. Robert A. Young (D-Mo.).

When H.R. 3701, a simple little measure to name the main channel of the San Leandro, Calif., marina after one Jack Maltester, was called to a vote, Young's friends were ready. An amendment was attached authorizing $114 million to upgrade and expand two federal buildings in Young's home district. Predictably, since Young is chairman of the subcommittee that decides who gets new federal buildings, the amendment passed.

But when it got to the Senate, it couldn't find a friend. Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), Environment and Public Works chairman, let it be known there was no way he'd go along with the bill.

It would have been graceless to say "no" on this one, so by a resolution offered by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), Room S-230 in the Capitol would become the Howard H. Baker Jr. Room. The room is the office that the retiring Baker used as majority leader.