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It is hard to remember a time since the new Republican Congress convened in January when Washington has seemed to be less at the center of events in the United States.

For almost a week the nation has been obsessed with the tragic and maddening bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City - not just death and devastation, pain and grief, but also the seeming certainty that it was the work of terrorists. American terrorists.President Clinton, in Oklahoma City for a memorial service on Monday, said he would ask Congress for legislation to combat such extremism. So the leaders of both parties would soon meet to discuss hedging civil liberties to offset assaults by killer-patriots.

Sen. Robert Dole, the Republican leader, stood alone in the Senate on Monday. Without speculating on specific legislation, Dole said of Clinton's statements since the bombing: "The tone set by the president was right on the mark."

Dole said in passing that the Senate, after a two-week recess, had less than half its members present to do business. Washington was not yet the center of the world again after two weeks off and the tragedy in Oklahoma.

On Tuesday, the Senate, sometimes emotional but not notably partisan, voted 97 to 0 for a bipartisan resolution condemning the bombers.

Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, said he had given much thought recently to "our increasingly hateful public discourse" on provocative issues. Assorted other members of the capital community have mused in the past few days about the possible effects out in the country of the harsh anti-government rhetoric, the talk-show bombast, that sometimes passes for discussing politics in America.

Anyway, Washington has seemed strangely mild of manner in recent days. We will be denied the formal presence of a House of Representatives for another week.

What justifies a longer vacation for the House is its passage of much of The Contract With America in 100 days as promised. Speaker Newt Gingrich, the man behind the House contract, has more legislation in mind. Passing it will be considerably harder, in general, because the subjects will include programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

The supporters of Medicare, for example, include many elderly, Republican, very conservative Americans. For Congress to work toward a balanced budget will require significant and progressive cuts in Medicare - and, in time, probably fairly basic changes in Social Security. The opposition to such changes will be severe, bipartisan and not sorted out by rich and poor.

In the Senate, Dole said to start this week: "I remind my colleagues we do have to catch up to the House."

Now the Senate will work on a competitive agenda that, in the end, could leave a good many House bills trimmed, reworked or dumped.