The U.S. Senate has a new china policy. It didn't come out of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, but from an equally formidable group, the Ladies of the Senate.

The chinaware policy, though the wives had a lot on their plate, was finally voted out in time (though many despaired) for the first sample firing to be presented to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and his wife Erma at their 50th wedding anniversary dinner May 28, given by 90 or so senators and wives at the Library of Congress. Sens. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) put together the gift of 10 place settings (about 60 pieces of plates, cups, saucers and bowls) that should arrive, one hopes, before their 51st celebration.

A great deal of bipartisan effort through many Senate sessions has been necessary to be able to set the table.

The china service, designed and commissioned by the Senate wives, American-made (of course) by Lenox, will be available to all the senators and their wives but not their children, constituents, lobbyists, PACs or Fat Cats. (Nothing, however says you can't take up a collection for your favorite senator and hope he wills the set to you.) The china policy doesn't violate Gramm-Rudman, because the chinaware bill will be private, not public.

"I know we've been talking about choosing a Senate chinaware pattern for 25 years," said B.A. Bentsen. "Carolyn Long tried years ago to get a consensus. But the women couldn't agree, or they'd forget what had been done so far. Time would go by, another group would be interested. About five years ago we took it up again.

"This time we got around to having Lenox make several samples for us. Not too many, because we'd be back where we started. We had a bipartisan committee and it finally boiled down to a few of us. Someone had to make a decision."

Dishing it up was not that easy. David Marcos, head of Senate stationery supplies, worked with the women's group and Lenox.

"We didn't want the seal to be so big it would be obscene or overpowering," he said. "We settled on one-inch in diameter. We were using a bastardization -- variation sounds better -- of the 1804 Senate seal -- stars, branches and eagle. We were between a rock and a hard place because you can't have it too much like the Great Seal of the United States. So we took the stars out and put them back in -- there's only so much you can do with an eagle."

The pattern starts with what Lenox calls the Mansfield shape (no relation to the former senator) and uses the Lowell pattern's gold rim. The prices aren't all firm, but Marcos bets on $140 to $160 per six-piece setting of dinner plate, salad, butter, cup and saucer and soup dish.

How many Senate wives will feel they can't invite anyone in to dinner without having the status china has yet to be determined. "Not many of us are getting married at this point," said B.A. Bentsen, married 44 years. "But I know I want the demitasse and maybe the dessert plate. I have plenty of china, but this is important. You think that a hundred years from now your children would turn over a plate and see your name on the back."

The Senate likes to think it sets the tone. But in this china policy, they are behind the House of Representatives, which has had members' china for at least a quarter of century. The White House has presidential china, with the Reagan pattern having been provided by their friends at the beginning of his term.

Barbara Bush (who has vice presidential china), by virtue of her husband's office, traditionally presides over the Ladies of the Senate.

Now the other Ladies of the Senate, when their china is delivered, can borrow china from each other. Talk about pork barrels -- think about china barrels!