BY COINCIDENCE Congress has sent the President legislation restricting GI benefits for veterans whose "had paper" discharges have been upgraded just at the moment when President Carter's six-month review program for upgrading those discharges is coming to an end. The President's program, it must be said, has been something less than a success. Out of the eligible 161,000 ex'servicemen with undesirable discharges, only about 25,000 applied, and only 16,000 of the applicants received the upgrading that would theoretically have entitled them to GI benfits. And while the program itself had flaws, it must also be said that it suffered in large part from the administration's failure to make a more serious efforts to explain it - and to explain the problem, as well. This failure, in turn, had other consequences: In Congress - and especially in the House - it left the field open to those who find it convenient or even patriotic to write off as "troublemakers" and "incompetents" thousands of Vietnam veterans who in many cases served honarably in combat, were wounded and in some cases decorated for valor, and who subsequently deserted in opposition to the war or got themselves into other kinds of trouble.

It is this element in Congress that we have to thank for the bill now on the President's desk that would deny automatic GI benefits to veterans whose "bad paper" discharges have been reviewed and upgraded to honorable. The President has unti Saturday night to decide whether this bill fits the spirit of "forgiveness" and "compassion" with which he proclaimed amnesty for draft evaders on the second day of his presidency. In the case of the draft evaders, violations of the law were pardoned and the full entitlements of a citizen were restored. But in the case of those who served and had second thoughts - who deserted or violated other military regulations - a clean slate would not be automatic. Congress would subject their entitlements to educational, health and other veterans benefits to a strict case-by-case review under standards that generally existed before the special Carter "upgrading" program and that were unrelated to the particular circumstances of Vietnam.

We believe that the bill should be vetoed on the ground that it puts too heavy a burden on a group of veterans who are already victimized by high rates of unemployment, serious readjustment problems and, in many cases, inadequate GI educational benefits. One compromise after another has been patched onto it. A few months ago, some obervers (ourselves included) saw hope that legislation offered by Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) provided a middle-way approach that was about as positive as could be expected, considering the congressional mood. But since then, the Cranston-Thurmond approach has been tightened in several ways, most notably including an overly severe and arbitrary definition of what constitutes being AWOL - absent without leave. As Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.) has noted, the bill does not take into account the reasons, circumstances and intent of an AWOL. In determining eligibility for benefits, Rep. Downey points out, "the fact that an unauthorized absence began after a successful period of service and with only weeks left in a soldier's tour of duty would be unimportant: more disturbing, any wounds, decorations or unfair treatment of a soldier would simply be ignored."

It ought to be noted that Sen. Cranston was as diligent as possible in the art of compromise. He understood, as many others in the Congress did not, that Vietnam veterans require a different approach because Vietnam was different from other American wars - different in the way it was launched, in the atmosphere that surrounded it and in its aftermath.

Although the bill sent to the President by Congress does have some useful provisions - such as giving entitlement to hospital care to individuals with bad discharges who suffered injuires in the line of duty - it falls short of what is needed. In suggesting a veto, we believe that the veterans whose benefits and livelihoods are at stake would be better served by the strict application of the President's oft-stated principles of forgiveness and compassion than by a Congress apparently unprepared to deal equitably with the necessary unfinished business in Vietnam.