THE SENATE stood small when it confirmed Daniel Manion to the federal bench. It rose barely as high as the level of the sorriest city council by bowing to Ronald Reagan. Its only satisfaction was that it slouched off with all its alibis in hand.

Vice President George Bush once again broke a tie. He previously rescued the president from losing on the MX and chemical warfare, and now he has added to his record of noxious loyalty.

Moderate Republicans, except for the five who valiantly voted against the Manion nomination, can go home and say yes, perhaps we can do better than Manion on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but then claim they didn't really vote to confirm him. They just voted on a procedural motion, which was quite a different thing. They voted to table a motion to reconsider a disputed June 26 vote favorable to Manion by 48 to 46.

It's a club thing, you see. They are for Robert Dole, their majority leader, whom they must support as a matter of prudence and party. One of them was Dan Evans of Washington, who voted against Manion the first time and who nonetheless voted to deny the Senate a chance to redeem itself last Wednesday.

Democrats have little to brag about. They failed to muster their full strength: Howell Heflin of Alabama, once chief justice of his state's supreme court, and Russell Long of Louisiana both came down on Manion's side.

The president, encouraged in his relentless pursuit of right-wing mediocrity on the federal bench, added to the squalor of the occasion by calling the opponents of the nomination "a little lynch mob."

The most arresting figure in the pageant of pettiness was Washington's other Republican senator, Slade Gorton. Gorton, who has a reputation as one of the more enlightened members of his party, played the part of the happy horse-trader.

From the day that Reagan sent up Manion's name, Gorton announced to one and all that his vote was up for grabs. He was not distracted by Manion's merits. He would vote for or against him depending on what action the Justice Department took on Gorton's choice for a district judgeship in his home state.

In the middle of the June 26 roll-call, Gorton was summoned from the chamber to the Republican cloakroom. There he was told that Justice, which had been sitting for months on the name of William L. Dwyer, was now ready to move the nomination.

When Gorton voted for Manion, Democratic opponents of the nomination, who had been counting on him, howled with rage, raced up to the Senate Press Gallery and denounced Gorton for selling out.

Gorton, who is up for reelection and had a comfortable 22-point lead over his challenger, Brock Adams, went home to a storm of criticism. One cartoonist showed a mangy wagon labeled "Slade's Shady Trades." Several editorials said of Gorton's deal, "It stinks."

Gorton professed, somewhat obtusely, to be surprised. "This has been treated by the press as a much more important issue than a single midwestern judgeship should be."

Gorton is a single-minded man. He said in a recent interview that he thought Dwyer, a Democrat and an ardent civil libertarian, is "worth it all." When asked by the Justice Department to submit more names, he refused. His first, second, third, fourth and fifth choices are all Dwyer, he retorted.

Dwyer is, from all the evidence, superbly qualified. He is a brilliant trial lawyer, a teacher and student of the law, a seeker of justice. He was counsel for John Goldmark, a Washington State legislator who brought suit for libel against a gaggle of right-wing fanatics who smeared him as a communist. He won.

Dwyer wrote a book called "The Goldmark Case." It is a clear, meticulous, ego-free account which shows him to have the intellectual and legal gifts that would make him an ornament to the bench.

The comparison with Manion is a wipeout. Dwyer can write. Manion's briefs are limping and inept. Dwyer has an appetite for big issues. Manion's practice has been in personal injury and small claims.

Gorton is asked why Washington State should have such a prize, while Indiana -- not to mention Illinois and Wisconsin which are also in the 7th Circuit -- has to settle for someone who in the words of Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) is "not up to snuff."

Gorton retreats into cramped rationalizations. He has two criteria in advising and consenting on judges from other locales: an ABA "qualified" stamp -- Manion got a mixed rating of "qualified" and "barely qualified" -- and the approval of home state senators.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) said Gorton, in swallowing Manion to get Dwyer, had "traded a horse for a rabbit." A district court judge only serves a in his state. The courts of appeals are just below the Supreme Court.

The Founders created the Senate and its six-year term to protect members from the whims of electorate and executive alike, to encourage them to think large thoughts about the nation as a whole. This week, the Founders' efforts failed.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.