THE HOUSE stopped pussyfooting on welfare reform last week and passed its bill. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where Daniel Patrick Moynihan has already assembled a majority, but behind a lesser alternative. The House Republicans and some conservative Democrats are miffed at the House leadership for finally strong-arming the bill to passage. They're right that the tactics were unfair, but it's also true that some of them deserved what they got. Stripped of the gingerbread, their idea of welfare reform is to muscle as many people as possible off the rolls, and not much more.

The House bill recognizes that welfare cannot be seriously restructured on the cheap. Like all the current round of welfare bills, it emphasizes work. It seeks to do a better job of making absent fathers pay, then sets up a new program to both help and pressure mothers to find jobs. The mix of help and pressure was a major issue. To ease the hoped-for movement off the rolls the bill would pay for day care, let a family stay on Medicaid a few more months than now and relax the formula by which a woman's benefit is cut as she begins to earn. There would also be assorted limits on the kinds of jobs that states could force recipients to take and which recipients could be forced to take them.

The bill would broaden welfare by requiring states to offer it not just to needy families with one parent gone but those in which the principal breadwinner is unemployed. Only half the states, albeit all those with the largest welfare populations, do so now. The legislation also contains an inducement to states to raise their benefits, which have lost about a third of their purchasing power in the last 15 years.

The Moynihan alternative contains no such inducement. The reasons lie in the familiar reciprocal math of votes and cost. The senator in stating the case for welfare reform has eloquently noted that a fifth of U.S. children live below the poverty line. But this is a bill that will be marked up in an election year; the budget is tight; benefit increases are expensive; there is not exactly a groundswell in the Senate to spend the next few billion dollars on welfare in any case; and the Senate is a subtler place than the House: you need bipartisan consensus. For similar reasons of cost, the Moynihan bill, which has 56 cosponsors, would not let mothers who go to work keep more of their earnings before their benefits are reduced. In other respects it and the House bill are basically alike.

It is not entirely clear that Sen. Moynihan can move even this bill intact through the Senate. If he does the issue will go to conference not just with the House but the White House. The virtue of the House bill then will be as a counter to the White House position, which is basically to turn the program (but not the necessary resources) over to the states. The welfare system isn't going to be transformed this year. Not even the modest House bill would do that, and the question now becomes: How much of even that bill can be saved?