THE STATE DEPARTMENT authorization bill left the Senate with many dozens of amendments that had not been part of the measure that the House passed. Some are frivolous, some are mean-spirited, and a few are just designed to show some interest group that the sponsor gave its cause a good college try. A handful of amendments, though, have real merit and were passed with absolutely no opposition. One of these would make it clear that with certain enumerated exceptions, no one could be denied a visa to enter this country simply because of past or current political beliefs or associations, or on the basis of the expected content of an alien's speech while in the United States.

This amendment, the end product of much litigation and congressional debate on the denial of visitors' visas to politically unpopular aliens, was adopted unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- keep in mind that Sen. Jesse Helms is a member -- and was passed without a dissenting vote by the full Senate. It was expected to meet no opposition from House members of the conference now in progress. Trouble has developed though, and from unexpected quarters. Liberal members of the House Judiciary Committee -- which would ordinarily handle matters involving visas -- have objected to the amendment now in the Senate version of the State Department authorization bill. Part of this is a simple turf fight: Judiciary and not Foreign Affairs should have jurisdiction. And some of it is strategic. House Judiciary members are said to prefer the more extensive changes that would be made by a bill introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, which is now under consideration in Judiciary. It would be a bad mistake, though, to continue to oppose the change that is all but accomplished in favor of a hope that something even better could be passed later.

Last month, an evenly divided Supreme Court placed limits on the government's power to exclude aliens because of political beliefs or expected speech. Because of the tie, however, the ruling applies only in that judicial circuit where the case originated -- the District of Columbia. The Senate amendment complements that ruling because it covers any government action, not only that invoked in a certain section of the immigration laws, and because its application would be nationwide. These are important improvements, and they should not be lost on the point of final enactment. If House members can move the Frank bill later, and if it wins wide support in the Senate, fine. But there is no need to forgo the improvements that could be made in a couple of weeks in favor of something that is perhaps better next year. The conferees should take the Senate language, and the House Judiciary Committee can build on tha