Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) started the abortion debate on the Senate floor last week by calling the District "the abortion capital of the United States."

Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) charged that the District has a "shameful, shocking record" on abortion, with 15 abortions for every 10 live births.

Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.) took the floor to say that "the issue . . . is life."

But opponents of the two antiabortion amendments that Helms and Humphrey sought to attach to the District's fiscal 1986 appropriations bill lowered the emotional pitch by shifting the focus of the debate from abortion policy to home rule prerogatives for the District.

Congress has voted repeatedly to prohibit the use of federal funds, such as Medicaid, for abortions for poor women. But the Helms and Humphrey amendments would go further, dictating how the city could or could not spend its own locally generated money. It was something Congress would never dream of doing to states that use their own tax revenues for the same purpose, opponents of the amendments argued.

In the end, the two amendments failed in back-to-back votes of 60 to 35 and 54 to 41 -- far wider margins than either side had predicted.

A pleased Nanette Falkenberg, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, included the votes among the "major victories" scored by prochoice forces last week. Voters rejected three other antiabortion referendums in local elections in Connecticut and New Hampshire. It will be easier in the future to get prochoice votes out of the Senate, Falkenberg predicted.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the antiabortion National Right to Life Committee, on the other hand, said the votes are not precursors of future Senate action on abortion policy, but an indication of how some swing-vote senators feel about home rule for the District.

The votes may, in fact, say more about how Congress adheres to the principle of home rule selectively, in this instance to allow the District to help poor women get abortions -- or at least to side-step a no-win, time-consuming debate on an emotional issue and get done with a bill that few of the members really care about.

Immediately after finishing up work on the abortion issue, the Senate approved two other amendments without debate or demur. One would freeze the amount of money in the bill (federally bestowed or locally raised) that the District can use for consultant services.

The other, offered by Sen. Paul Trible (R-Va.), directs the city to reimburse Fairfax County up to $50,000 in costs incurred for police and fire assistance in cases of escapes or riots at the city-operated Lorton Reformatory complex in Virginia. Fairfax County has been arguing that it is entitled to such reimbursement since early this year when the county provided assistance to the prison. When negotiations between city and county officials failed to produce an agreement the Senate stepped in.

The next attempt to direct the city's activities involved street signs. A proposed amendment would have specified the size and location of signs put up by the city to designate Sakharov Plaza, the 16th Street NW location of the Soviet Embassy, which Congress last year named for the Soviet dissident.

D.C. City Council Chairman David Clarke said later that that proposal "bothers me more than anything" from a home rule standpoint, even more than the abortion vote, because the Senate was getting involved in a "solely local" matter.

The street sign amendment was ruled out of order on a technicality, but not so the next provision mentioned. That one, which originated in the House of Representatives, designates part of 15th Street SW, in front of the future U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as Raoul Wallenberg Place, for the man who risked his life in Nazi Budapest to save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

Next, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), respectively ranking minority member and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, got up to chastise the District for its failure to follow Virginia and Maryland in raising the legal drinking age to 21.

Specter said the subcommittee will monitor the "progress" of the city in the next year and then "see if the District's small size and limited stake in the highway program [the congressional stick used against states that do not raise their drinking age] represents a unique situation, requiring a different approach."

When the bill emerges from conference, it probably will be to the city's liking, with House-passed restrictions on abortion funding likely deleted and another amendment on city contracting modified. And it will include more federal money to build the prison that Mayor Marion Barry has been persuaded -- with a major push from Congress -- must be built.

Regardless of whether Congress is right or wrong in what it wants the District to do -- on abortion, on the competitive bidding of contracts, on prisons, on drinking, on street names -- the home rule argument invoked so seriously in the abortion debate dissolves quickly when it suits congressional desires.