IN THE budget he sent to Congress at the start of the year, President Clinton embraced a modest proposal by Sens. James Jeffords and Edward Kennedy to let people who leave the disability rolls to work remain enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid. The prospect of losing their health insurance would no longer be the enormous deterrent it currently is. In many cases, the government would be saving money. Instead of paying both disability benefits and health care costs, it would pay only the latter. The newly enfranchised worker would meanwhile start paying taxes.

A finger-snapper, you would think, but Congress is at the end of the session, and it's still not entirely clear the bill will pass. It's almost done, negotiators say, but a couple of issues remain, and in the end-of-session climate a couple of issues can hang up anything. But these are minor questions, and they ought not be allowed to strand a bill as worthy as this.

Not that many people will be able to take advantage of the bill in any case. The people on the disability rolls tend to be quite seriously disabled, and only a minority probably have the capacity to rejoin the work force. But the fact that it won't have that broad an effect is all the more reason to pass it; it's not going to break the bank.

Some conservatives fear it could set a precedent for further expansions of Medicare and Medicaid, in that it breaches current eligibility rules. Medicare is limited to the elderly and disabled; here a non-elderly person no longer meeting the definition of disabled could continue to receive it. Likewise, people whose return to work moved their incomes above existing Medicaid eligibility levels would nonetheless be allowed to buy in. But these are limited exceptions. One of the hang-ups last night was a pilot program to let people of modest means with degenerative diseases also buy into Medicaid in order to remain in the work force. That, too, would be a limited exception that makes common sense.

This is a Congress that already threatens to set a record for incompetence. Failure, for such niggling reasons, to pass this bill would take it off the charts.