HOUSE REPUBLICANS let it be known that they aren't the least bit interested in sitting down with the White House and Democratic lawmakers to work out a sensible compromise on the District's $4.7 billion budget. Rather than meeting to resolve the impasse over the city's spending plan, the House GOP, on a mostly party line vote, rammed through for the third time a bill that is unacceptable to the Clinton administration and city leaders. Fortunately for the city, the Senate took a major step toward saving the day by passing a better budget bill yesterday.

The House action on Thursday was driven by a partisan desire to make political hay at President Clinton's expense. Last month, in a stout defense of D.C. home rule, the president objected to the attachment of several social riders on the D.C. budget -- including a ban on the use of medical marijuana and drug needle exchanges -- because they interfere in local decision-making. Instead of accepting the presidential veto for what it was, House Republicans have been using that decision to smear Mr. Clinton as soft on drugs. In order to further embarrass the president, House Republicans passed a virtually unchanged bill, sending it to the Senate, where they hoped allies in the upper chamber would keep the game going. To its credit, the Senate refused to go along.

Unlike the House's, the Senate's bill allows the city to review and comment on the voting rights case now being privately litigated in the District's behalf. The Senate also permits the Whitman Walker Clinic to accept private funds for the important needle exchange program. Again, the House bill would not. And key funds added earlier for college tuition assistance and crime-fighting programs are still intact. The ban on the poorly worded medical marijuana initiative still stands, however. Likewise, a provision allowing the construction of cellular telephone antenna towers in Rock Creek Park remains alive.

The Senate bill is far from perfect. But it is better than the House's and a good start toward producing an acceptable final product. Above all, the city needs a permanent budget, not the temporary spending resolution under which it has been operating. District leaders have done their part by passing a balanced budget with a surplus and tax cuts. The Senate has stepped forward and provided leadership sadly lacking in the House. Now it's time for Senate-House conferees, Del. Norton and administration officials to negotiate a D.C. budget bill that is worthy of the president's signature.