THE HOUSE leadership has given further ground on welfare reform. We hope this time the right combination has been found. This is worthy legislation but flinty terrain; some members will never vote aye. Others must be either allowed to amend the bill or forced to eat it. The distracted leadership has not done a world-class job on either score.

You know the legislation's history. Late last year and early this year, it was widely proclaimed and even believed that a gentle miracle had occurred. Traditional opponents in the welfare debate had bent their swords into seminars and found they now agreed; consensus was at hand. The agreement was always more rhetorical than real. The Democrats nonetheless seized on it to produce a bill. The bill began by emphasizing child support and work, which everyone is for. Then it also wafted off into benefit improvements, which most Republicans and some Democrats are against. The critics also think the work provisions are a little soft, that they provide too much carrot, not enough stick.

The sponsors always knew they'd have to yield a bit. The questions were how much and how soon. The rear-guard action began in the Ways and Means Committee. The welfare subcommittee's bill had set minimum benefit standards after a number of years. There are no federal minimums now; southern states would be the most affected. Southern Democrats insisted the provision come out.

An effort was then made to protect the rest of the legislation by sealing it in last month's reconciliation bill, the deficit reduction measure that included a tax increase. But it turned out that there weren't the votes to bring up reconciliation unless the welfare provisions were removed. The leadership then tried to protect the welfare bill a second way; it proposed, and the Rules Committee dutifully supplied, what is known as a modified closed rule, meaning there could be no amendment. The House would have to choose among the Democratic bill, a scrawny Republican substitute and no bill at all.

A large group of mostly conservative Democrats balked at that too. Now the leadership is offering them a further alternative, a controlled amendment tightening the Democratic bill in certain respects and cutting its cost about 10 percent. They can vote for frugality and then reform all in the same afternoon. That isn't all they want, and they are right that majorities should be freer to form and work their will on the House floor. But it is also late in the year; there has been a concession; the bill is a decent weave between the contradictory objectives that almost everyone has, of putting pressure on welfare families while supporting them. Four committees whose members equal almost a third of the House have had some say in drafting this bill, which the Senate is expected to weaken. The reluctant Democrats can neither hide nor perfect forever; it's time to vot