THEY STOOD ON THE steps of the Capitol, braving the wind and bitter cold, listening to speakers and rhetoric they heard so many times before. And when their leader, an unmarried Catholic career woman named Nellie Gray, yelled that she would not sit down at the table with baby killers, they cheered her on with chants of "no compromise."

So much for your invitation, Ellie Smeal. They've turned you down. They won't come to your party. Not these folks, anyway.

Washington was knee-deep in sanctimonious rhetoric Monday. More so than usual. Some 60,000 anti-abortin protesters marched through downtown to the Capitol, holding aloft brilliantly covered banners proclaiming the value of human life and waving portraits of babies fixed to crosses. They carried red roses and chanted, "Life, life."

They Marched right past the Hotel Washington and the National Press Club where "prochoice" organizations, also capitalizing on the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion, held press conferences to denounce Medicaid cutoffs for abortions and to celebrate the court's decision. The rhetoric there had much to do with "reporoductive freedom," and Gloria Steinem managed to get off a line about abortion being "an intimate Vietnam for women."

It was a day in which rhetoric and exaggerations prevailed. While antiabortionists raved about baby killers, "prochoice" groups denounced the Helms amendment in the most imaginative analysis.

The amendment reads: "The paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization without regard to age, health or condition of dependency." The antiabortion people want this amendment to the Constitution want this amendment to the Constitution as a measure to overthrow the Supreme Court's decision

Karen Mulhauser, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, told a press conference that this means "all abortions would be considered premeditated murder..."

"All abortions, natural and induced, would be subject to litigation and prosecution. In addition, the more effective birth control methods, such as IUDs and some bith control pills, considered by the antiabortion fanatics to be abortifacients, would be outlawed, increasing the need for abortion by causing more unwanted pregnancies."

That's a lot to read into the Helms' amendment, which, for example, says absolutely nothing about premeditated murder. It's the kind of scare agrument we heard from the anti-ERA forces with their vision of unisex bathrooms.

Amid the rhetoric on Monday, the National Organization for Women raised a constructive voice, a plea for reason in a dispute that is becoming destructively bitter. NOW president Eleanor Smeral issued an invitation to some 40 organizations on both sides of the abortion issue to meet at the Madison Hotel in Washington on Feb. 15 to see whether there is any common ground.

"We are increasingly appalled by the fact that there is no longer any reasonable discussion on this subject," said Smeal at her press conference. No, she said, "we do not think a dialogue would change the position on abortion on either side." But that's not the point, she said. The point is to work around the abortion issue. "One common goal is to reduce the need for abortion and perhaps from that common goal, others can be reached."

The various groups involved in the abortion controversy have waged their fight in public demonstrations, through lobbying, through campaigning and through the press, said Smeal. They've never sat down and talked to each other. Further, she said, anti-abortion followers are unified on the single issue of abortion, but they have different positions on family planning, types of contraception that are acceptable, on sex education in schools and in government clinics. "We are treating them and they are treating us like monoliths, "she said.

"They have repeatedly said they are not [against family planning]," said Smeal. "If tht's true, we want to know where their lines are being drawn.... Is this a religious war?... Is this an attack on abortion or is this an attack on birth control itself?"

Smeal, in effect, has called for a summit on the abortion issue, and she has also thrown down the gauntlet. She is suggesting that "prolife" organizations perhaps to lobby the federal government to increase its research on contraception, to increase its family planning services, all of which would prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion.

The response she received from the rally, from the people who chanted "no compromise," from the people who wrapped themselves up in rhetoric about how they not sit at the table with baby killers, was, hopefully, a response from the diehards, the extremists, the people who are so sure they are right in their belief that they can afford not to listen to others.

But Arlie Scott, NOW's vice president for action, said that as of late yesterday she had received calls from a right to life group in California saying it would attend the meeting and from an active member of a "prolife" group in St. Louis saying she wanted to attend.

"They were very enthusiastic about it," said Scott. "It was an experience talking to these women and finding that there are things we can agree about. As it is now, each side is calling each other murderers. That's a very difficult position to negotiate from."

For the first time in a long while a responsible voice is calling for a dialogue on abortion. The initial public response from the antiabortion forces was to holler "baby killer." But Scott is saying that other "prolife" advocates are enthusiastic about finding ways of getting at the cause of un-wanted pregnancy. That is, after all, the most logical way of reducing the need for abortion. And finally, it appears, responsible people on both sides of the controversy are setting slogans and rhetoric aside and are prepared to sit down and seek solutions.