Shortly before Christmas last year, the US Senate marked the season by meeting in round-the-clock sessions. Good natures wore thin as one determined member, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, fought a last-ditch stand against the 5-cent-a-gallon gasoline-tax increase. Finally he gave way, and the bill passed, but not before touching off calls for changing the rules of the US Senate.
Such calls for more order in the Senate have been amply answered by a Senate study group headed by former Sens. James B. Pearson (R) of Kansas and Abraham A. Ribicoff (D) of Connecticut. Set up nearly a year ago by the Senate leadership, the group recently has released a draft proposal that would attempt to restore the ''world's greatest deliberative body'' to its former glory.
The proposals, probably the most drastic changes ever recommended by a Senate reform group, call not only for curbing delay tactics on the Senate floor, but also for setting a tight agenda for the year, reducing the number of committees, and all but eliminating subcommittees.
While today a Senate debate often means one or two senators talking to an almost-empty chamber, the report seeks to bring back the oratory of the Senate's illustrious past. Not only would more members be required to be present, but they would be forced to be spontaneous. Reading an entire speech would be forbidden.
The result would be a Senate very different from the freewheeling upper chamber with unlimited debate that exists today. ''No question about it,'' says Secretary of the Senate William F. Hildenbrand. ''You would have a totally regulated environment.''
''All the recommendations are within the tradition of the Senate,'' says a Senate Rules Committee staff member who helped write the report, adding that the Senate was more structured in the past than it is now.
Despite a polite reception from Senate leadership, the reforms will have a rocky road. As minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia commented this week, ''Changing the rules is next to the most difficult thing on Earth.''