For the first time in 16 years, Congress is set to consider a major, comprehensive push to improve the nation's child care system. The initial price tag on this item is $2.5 billion, and you don't have to be a political savant to realize that getting that kind of money out of Congress for any new program is going to be an enormous struggle. That doesn't mean, however, that it can't be done.

The bill introduced yesterday would provide for federal funds to help states expand the variety and availability of child care services, and improve the licensing and training provisions for child care workers as well as help them set up and expand facilities. It also would provide new funding for subsidized child care services for low-income families. So far, the bill has 127 cosponsors in the House and 23 in the Senate.

And it has the support of 95 national organizations, including trade unions, medical associations, women's groups and religious organizations. They have formed the Alliance for Better Childcare in a strategy to combine forces behind one major bill that might get the nation to address the crisis in child care.

Their timing might finally be right.

The last major federal effort to develop a comprehensive child care system was shot down by President Nixon in 1971, amid charges that it was too costly, would weaken families and lead to the "Sovietization" of American children.

Since then, American children of working parents haven't been "Sovietized." They have had to come home to empty houses, they've been left in unlicensed, crowded day care centers and they have simply been left home alone when impoverished parents have had to go to work. Children have been abused and killed in child care and they have died alone at home.

In Dade County, Fla., two preschool children were killed when they climbed into a clothes dryer after their mother left them alone because she could not stay home from work another day. The children had been on a waiting list for subsidized care that had 22,000 names on it. A year later, the list had grown to 26,400.

In the past year in the Washington area alone, seven children have died in child care facilities.

Since 1971, the country has engaged in a lively dialogue about child care at the same time that economic pressures have forced more and more mothers into the work force. The time for debate about child care is over. America's working parents need help desperately. Whether they are single mothers on welfare, whether they are the working poor, whether they are the working middle class or the working upper middle class, they are almost sure to be harshly affected at some point by a lack of reliable, affordable, safe child care. No other industrialized nation behaves so foolishly toward its working families and its young.

Part of the blame for this has to be put on the doorstep of working parents who have not used political muscle to improve the child care system. As Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court hearings dramatically illustrated, Congress does listen to the American people. But working parents don't have the time, money or sheer energy to lobby for money and programs that will help their families. They make do on sheer grit while the defense industry prospers with high-paid lobbyists and gets the most fabulous peacetime accumulation of war toys ever.

Things may be changing. The Alliance for Better Childcare can be the vehicle through which American parents can tell Congress they want help with child care just as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights provided the leadership in the fight against the Bork nomination.

Let no one in the debates about this bill get away with saying that the money is not there. The defense authorization bill for fiscal 1988 called for $3.9 billion for Star Wars, a defense system of infinitely more dubious value than a good child care system.

Further, the Navy last year asked for a couple of new Nimitz aircraft carriers that go for about $3.5 billion a pop. Add the trimmings -- the airplanes that fly off them, the support and escort ships that are necessary to supply and protect them -- and you are talking $18.5 billion for each carrier battle group.

Congress has authorized $700 million for the first stage of funding for this project. The commitment got made, in other words, for two carrier battle groups that will cost well over $30 billion.

The money is there, but the essential political question is what it is going to be used for. Now is the time for American working parents to speak out.