Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the Senate's leading conservatives, has sponsored a women's conference in his home state for the past three years. Last year, about 3,000 women from across the political spectrum attended. "Child care," he says, "was a theme that kept coming through."

In addition, he says, "I have a lot of women advisers now who have taken time to teach me. I've had to learn. I've taken time to listen." The result has been his introduction of the Child Care Services Improvement Act, a lean, supply side, state- and community-oriented approach to increasing the availability of child care. It is the second major piece of legislation addressing child care to be introduced this year.

The last legislative push to improve the nation's child care system took place in 1971, when President Nixon vetoed a bill that conservatives claimed was too costly and would create undue interference by the federal government in the raising of America's children.

That legislative history makes it particularly significant that Hatch has taken the lead in trying to develop a conservative approach to the enormous shortage of child care services for working parents. On the one hand, it is clear that he recognizes the extent of the problem and on the other, he is willing to lend his considerable conservative cachet to finding solutions. In a recent meeting with a small group of journalists, he said that had he been in the Senate in 1971, he probably would have opposed that child care legislation. Now he says that his bill will be "my number one legislative agenda for next year."

Hatch is the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Another committee member, Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), is the chief sponsor of the Act for Better Child Care Services, a $2.5 billion program that has the support of more than 80 labor unions, religious and women's groups and child advocacy organizations. "I think we're going to try to work together," Hatch says. "We know it has to be bipartisan."

The bills differ in a number of fundamental ways, the most important being cost: Hatch says his approach would increase the supply of day care slots at a fraction of the cost -- $875 million over three years. It also places considerable emphasis on using federal funds as catalysts to gin up more state and local involvement in developing child care that suits local communities' needs.

Hatch stressed the local autonomy he is seeking when he introduced the bill Sept. 11. "States may grant funds for such activities as scholarships for low-income families, after-school programs, temporary care for sick children, or the renovation of public buildings to accommodate neighborhood or community child care centers, to name just a few," he says. "Title I also sets out the bill's only major requirement -- that recipients of funds under the act must meet state licensing or accreditation standards."

His bill also would authorize $100 million to help states set up liability insurance pools to help child care providers deal with the insurance crisis and would change the law to curb liability damages against child care providers. The bill would also set up a $25 million revolving loan fund to enable child care providers to borrow up to $1,500 to make capital improvements to meet local licensing standards. This is a feature of the legislation that would be of particular help to the family day care providers who take care of children in their own homes and frequently cannot afford to make the renovations that would enable them to meet fire and safety codes and thus be accredited to provide care.

Some other innovative features in the Hatch bill include tax code incentives for business and for parents. Businesses would get a 25 percent tax credit, up to $100,000, for establishing on-site child care programs. The bill would at least help address the desperate need for infant care by providing an additional $2,000 exemption for a parent who wants to stay at home and forgo work for six months after the birth of a child. Another incentive would allow homemakers to contribute up to $2,000 in an Individual Retirement Account.

Hatch is the first to say he thinks children are better off with a parent who stays at home. He has also faced the reality that for many families this simply isn't possible. He thinks conservatives will support his approach -- even if he doesn't have the support of conservative leaders. "I think there's room for conservative thought here," he says. "If conservatives put their heads in the sand on this I think they are ignoring the most important family issue of our time."