THE REPUBLICAN tax bill was altered just before the final vote to keep aboard some Senate moderates who were unhappy with its cost and tilt, and without whose support it could not have passed. Room was found for three provisions benefiting low- and middle-income families, including an increase in child care subsidies. All are worthy, but they are little more than tokens -- feel-good provisions -- when measured against the principal features of the bill. The child care provision is particularly thin gruel.

An increase in child care subsidies was among the largest initiatives in the president's budget this year for the second year in a row. He sought about $20 billion over five years, most to be split between the two main existing forms of aid -- grants to the states that mainly benefit the poor and tax credits for those at middle income levels and above.

The tax bill reported out by the Senate Finance Committee included an increase in the credit for the middle class. The credit was expanded on the Senate floor to cover stay-at-home moms as well, the argument being that the government ought not favor families in which mothers work outside the home over "traditional" families in which they don't. The Senate agreed at the behest of Sens. James Jeffords and Christopher Dodd to include an increase in grants to the states for the poor as well.

In conference, the money for the poor was dropped. What Mr. Jeffords finally was able to salvage, as part of the price of his vote and perhaps the votes of some others, was some of the subsidy money for the middle class only. It seems to us a weak bargain. The neediest are denied and the overall tilt of the bill is little affected; it continues disproportionately to benefit the better-off. Perhaps it doesn't matter, since the bill seems headed toward the veto it deserves. But if later in the year the president is presented with a less offensive bill that likewise provides an increase in the credit for the middle class without a comparable increase for the poor, he should veto it as well. He was right to insist in his budget that the two be done in tandem; he ought not bargain that away.