THE PRESIDENT would be wise to take a look at the numbers by which both houses of Congress passed the Grove City bill and reconsider his threat to veto it. The measure has been before the legislature since early in 1984, when the Supreme Court limited the government's power to enforce the civil rights statutes. In a case involving Grove City College, the court held that the government could cut off federal funding in a specific program at a college if there was discrimination in that program, but could not penalize the institution as a whole. Because of this restriction, hundreds of discrimination complaints were turned away, and some institutions were able to continue receiving federal funds in spite of bias in some programs.

The proponents of this bill say that it will simply restore to the government the powers it had before the 1984 court ruling. The administration has argued that it will extend the reach of the civil rights laws and give federal authorities expanded power to interfere in the affairs of religious institutions, small businesses and private citizens. Opponents circulated horror stories about how the bill would cover farmers receiving crop subsidies, church-affiliated hospitals that refuse to perform abortions and mom and pop grocery stores that accept food stamps. While not conceding that any of these fears were justified, civil rights forces agreed to a series of amendments three years ago that specifically exclude coverage of "ultimate beneficiaries" of federal funding, such as farmers and Social Security recipients, for example; exempted small providers, such as the corner grocery stores from regulations governing access by the handicapped; and limited corporate-wide coverage generally. They also fought -- but have now accepted -- an amendment clarifying the fact that institutions receiving federal funds are not required to perform or pay for abortions. These changes -- all in the final version of the bill -- greatly undercut the administration's arguments against passage.

What principle is behind the president's determination to veto the bill? Does he believe that institutions receiving federal funds should be allowed to discriminate just a little bit more, that the government's right to see that the taxpayers' money is spent fairly is somehow less important than the right of an institution to have that money with no strings attached? And who is counting votes for the White House -- does he not see that a veto would be futile and politically explosive? The Senate passed the Grove City bill 75 to 14; the vote in the House was 315 to 98. A veto would only infuriate Congress, embarrass Republican candidates and provoke a swift and public rebuke of the president. The bill is a good one. It cannot be killed.