Something wonderful happened on Capitol Hill a few minutes after midnight on July 30. The House of Representatives voted for the first time in favor of human rights and against the School of the Americas (SOA), unfondly known as the School of the Assassins. This small miracle could be undone when House conferees meet with their Senate counterparts next month, but right now it's hallelujah time for the people who have watched and prayed and gone to prison over this issue throughout the '90s.

Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the group SOA Watch, came home from missionary service in Central America in the early '80s appalled at what he had learned about the school's graduates oppressing and killing their countrymen. Alumni have been implicated in a long string of atrocities in Central America, including the murder of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980 in El Salvador. Every year Bourgeois has persuaded increasing numbers of his fellow religious and lay sympathizers to participate in ever-larger civil disobedience actions at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga.

"My cup runneth over," Bourgeois said about the 230 to 197 congressional vote to cut $2 million of the school's $4.5 million operating budget.

The Pentagon budget figure is disputed by SOA Watch, which is run by the mother-daughter team of Carol Richardson and Heather Dean. They say the school costs from $15 to $20 million yearly, which they claim is concealed in various other accounts. The floor manager of the bill, Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), like the protesters, wants to close down the school, but calls the fund cut a "great victory."

Moakley has an old-shoe style much like that of his late patron and friend, House Speaker Tip O'Neill. He grew up in a South Boston housing project, has no side, calls his colleagues "pal" and makes them all laugh--even Dick Armey, the partisan majority leader, who calls Moakley "my favorite Democrat."

On the subject of Latin America, Moakley has what every member craves, moral authority. When six Jesuits were murdered in El Salvador in 1989, Moakley, a graduate of the Jesuits' Boston College, was incensed. He led a task force that, despite resistance from the Salvadoran military, the U.S. State Department and the CIA, forced an investigation that turned up the fact that 19 of the 26 killers were SOA alumni. Moakley inherited the legislation on SOA from another Massachusetts Democrat, Joe Kennedy, who turned over the baton when he quit Congress at the end of the last term. Moakley acquired a Republican ally, a conservative from Florida half his age, 36-year-old Rep. Joe Scarborough. Scarborough is as passionate about the school as the crusading seniors who gather every November at the gates of Fort Benning, inviting incarceration. "I would go to jail for human rights," Scarborough says. He helped turn nine Republican votes.

The Pentagon organized inspection trips to SOA to show congressional visitors that it really does teach human rights and democracy to its students.

Moakley went among his colleagues, advising them not to take the word of the military either in Georgia or in Central America, but to seek out ordinary people in El Salvador for their information.

Moakley and Scarbrough had some hope the president would be on their side, even though they knew he never bucks the Pentagon. In March, Clinton made an apology in Guatemala for U.S. Cold War excesses. He quoted the Truth Commission, which was highly critical of the school. But Clinton also wrote a letter in support of the school to a Georgia congressman. "I am never surprised by anything the president does," said Moakley mildly.

Scarbrough said he wasn't disappointed. The president's sad record on human rights in China, Sudan and elsewhere had prepared him.

Their handiwork, they know, could still be unraveled in the Senate. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he is a friend of SOA. The SOA Watch members have him much in mind. They have roused their nationwide network for an intense lobbying effort during the recess. McConnell will receive special attention. The protesters plan to remind him about one of his constituents, Sister Marge Eilerman. The member of the order of St. Francis, who is in her sixties, is serving a 14-month prison sentence for civil disobedience and damaging the SOA sign outside Fort Benning. The activists will urge the senator to go visit her or, better still, go to Central America and hear from other victims of the school. "She's having a hard time," Father Bourgeois says. "It's her first time in jail." Bourgeois has already served four jail terms for his protests.

Now that they have finally won one in the House, everybody concerned about this Cold War relic thinks that anything is possible.