It was the ultimate irony of the Senate debate this week on the District's 1988 appropriations bill: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) scolded Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for treading on home rule by seeking to overturn a controversial D.C. insurance law -- at the same time Harkin was pushing through a measure to postpone construction of a new city prison because he didn't like the site.

Helms brushed aside the criticism, noting that for all the impassioned rhetoric about home rule, senators tend to "pick and choose" among issues in deciding how far to go in imposing their will over the District.

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who tried unsuccessfully to push through a strict antiabortion amendment, put it more bluntly: "In the bill before us, we have a lot of congressional involvement that directly violates the intent of home rule . . . . It has happened every single year. It will continue to happen. And so the home rule question is not really valid."

While both the House and Senate have regularly weighed in on District issues since the advent of home rule 12 years ago, the Senate in recent years has become far more aggressive in influencing D.C. policy and spending, particularly in the areas of corrections, law enforcement and transportation.

Unlike the House, where Democrats far outnumber Republicans and blacks hold many key committee assignments overseeing the predominantly black District, the Senate is marginally Democratic and members on both sides of the aisle are far less sympathetic to the District's aspirations for self-rule.

Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.), who vigorously opposed Helm's amendment as an unwarranted intrusion on home rule, said yesterday that the Senate over the years has treated the District in a condescending manner.

"There are shades of difference today, but that patronizing effect continues," Weicker said. "It's the precedent that bothers me. The more of these efforts that succeed, the more we move back in time to where the Congress ran the District, and I just don't want to see that."

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the majority whip, said the Senate's actions this week did not reflect displeasure with the D.C. government so much as "the touchiness of the issues," such as prisons, abortion and AIDS.

But Helms openly questioned Mayor Marion Barry's competence in the face of several federal probes of his administraton. He also warned that in the event the House approves a D.C. statehood bill, he would lead the fight against it in the Senate.

By the time the Senate had completed floor action Wednesday on the District's $3.9 billion operating and capital budget, members had voted to: Approve Helms's amendment to freeze all city funds by Dec. 12 -- bringing police, fire and all other city services to a halt -- unless the D.C. Council agrees to rescind a year-old law prohibiting insurers from requiring tests for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus. The law, which had been sought by gay activists, prompted most major insurance companies to stop issuing life insurance policies in the District.

City officials, surprised by the Senate action, indicated that the insurance law probably would be changed, regardless of whether Congress retains the Helms amendment in the bill.

Order a moratorium on construction of a prison near the D.C. Jail on the outskirts of Capitol Hill until next year. The measure will give the General Accounting Office and federal corrections officials time to reexamine three alternate sites away from residential neighborhoods.

Harkin, who succeeded Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) as chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee in January, proposed the delay and a freeze on federal funding for the project after receiving numerous complaints from residents near the prison site. Specter, who spent years persuading the city and Congress to go along with the current project, took the floor to plead against any further delays. Order the D.C. Fire Department to spend $10,000 to purchase scuba equipment and to train divers, following several incidents in which police and fire boat crews were slow in rescuing victims whose vehicles had plunged into the water because of inadequate equipment or training. Urge the D.C. Council to eliminate a city residency requirement for police and firefighters. Union leaders representing police and firefighters have complained that the requirement has created financial hardships for their members. Require the District to regularly audit a ceremonial fund used by the mayor, following reports that some of those funds may have been used to make personal loans and to help pay for a fur coat purchased for Barry's wife, Effi. The council, in anticipation of the Senate action, has adopted emergency legislation mandating regular audits and public disclosure of the fund.

As it has in the past, the Senate rejected a tough antiabortion amendment, this time by a vote of 60 to 39. The amendment, introduced by Nickles, would have prevented the District from using its own funds, as well as federal funds, to pay for abortions for the poor except to save the life of the mother.

Nickles and other conservative Republicans complained that the District had become the "abortion capital" of the country.

However, Harkin argued that while he is opposed to abortions, Congress, in this case, should not dictate how the city should spend its own funds.