AFTER THREE years of stalemate, the Clinton administration and the House leadership are said to be nearing a compromise on the United Nations. One version would push the problem into next year; the other would deeply upset some people in both parties. The second option is preferable.

The first, politically tempting compromise involves paying only a part of America's debts to the United Nations. That would stave off the humiliation of losing the right to vote in the General Assembly. It would also allow the House leadership to placate the antiabortion faction of its party. For the past two years, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has made full payment of U.N. debts conditional upon passage of an antiabortion amendment that would hobble America's family-planning aid. By allowing him to attach his language to part of the U.N. money, but not all, the House leadership could keep the U.N. vote and keep him happy.

That was the compromise reached last year; a repeat is all too possible. But this outcome would condemn Congress and the administration to another U.N. fight next year -- a fight, moreover, that would be even more intractable than the current one. Under the balanced budget agreement reached in 1997, Congress can appropriate money for the United Nations now without having to make compensating cuts in other programs. Next year that will not be allowed, making repayment of the United Nations all the more difficult.

Rather than split the difference over the money, Congress and administration need to look hard at the abortion language. Earlier this year Congress did pass, by a margin of 221 to 208, an alternative to Rep. Smith's language crafted by Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.). Whereas the Smith amendment would prevent family-planning groups that receive American aid from advocating abortion, the Greenwood version would do so only in countries where local laws forbid such lobbying. The administration has signaled that it would accept the Greenwood amendment. The House leadership should seize this opportunity.