SENATE DEMOCRATS began the present campaign finance debate by proposing that candidates who agreed to spending limits be able to get up to 80 percent of their money in public funds. The Republicans objected, and now the Democrats have cut their proposal in half: the most a candidate could get would be 40 percent. The Democrats have indicated they might be willing to retreat even farther; their interest, they say, is not the money, but the spending limits the money makes possible. It is in this context that Majority Leader Robert Byrd has scheduled another cloture vote this afternoon.

This is not prissy legislation, nor is it, as some Republicans have heatedly argued, partisan. There will always be money in politics, and no one is saying there should not be. But the need for enormous amounts of money has come in recent years to dominate and twist the system in a way that is not healthy. In state after state, to the detriment sometimes of one party, sometimes of the other, the campaign process has been taken over by high rollers and the fear of being left behind. The path is insane. The Democrats are appealing to moderate Republicans to vote for . . . moderation in this most sensitive juncture of our politics. The alternative is to continue to obstruct the bill.

Originally the Democrats proposed that a candidate who agreed to the spending limit for his state -- the limits are based on population -- should raise the first 20 percent on his own, mostly in small amounts from his constituents. The Treasury would then give him the rest. Now the proposal is that, after the candidate antes up the first 20 percent, the Treasury would match his remaining small contributions. The most the Treasury could thus contribute would be 40 percent of the state spending limit.

No legislator likes to appear to be feathering his own nest. The sponsoring Democrats say that if they could they would be happy merely to legislate spending limits, but the Supreme Court has said they can't. The court has ruled that under the First Amendment spending limits can be imposed only in a kind of contract between government and volunteering candidate, as a condition for receipt of federal funds. Since the trade-off of spending limits for public funds would thus be voluntary, there is also a practical problem in keeping it attractive. Otherwise no one would play; the whole apparatus would be hortatory and meaningless.

The Democrats in any case have moved to minimize the role of public finance. The Republican caucus has responded by saying public finance is not the only issue; Minority Leader Bob Dole has been instructed not to negotiate on spending limits either. That's closer to the bone. Clearly it is the position of some Republicans; the question is whether it is the position of all. Sen. Byrd says he will keep up the pressure to find out. It's a good use of the Senate's time