Key House members cautiously predicted yesterday that an extension of time for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment would be approved today by the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee which approved a seven-year extension, said it would be a "cliff hanger," but, at the moment, proponents of the extension appeared to have an edge.

The edge was gained by a "compromise" extension from seven years to "more than that would shorten the time period of the three but less than four years," according to Edwards.

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) said it was "one vote either way" but a leadership aide said the leadership expected a vote of 18 to 16 in favor of extension. "I'm in there twisting arms" for the extension, O'Neill said.

O'Neill predicted it would pass on the floor if it were adopted by the Judiciary Committee.

Edwards also said there were enough votes to prevent a rider being attached that would allow states to rescind their ratification.

Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) said ERA proponents would not accept a bill that had recission attached to it. Recission does profound damage. If they had accepted recission, I doubt the 14th Amendment [preventing discrimination on the basis of race, color or creed] would have been ratified," she said.

One other major question is whether it would take a two-thirds majority to adopt an extension of time as it takes to pass a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.) is expected to offer an amendment requiring a two-thirds majority to pass the extension, but Edwards said he had the votes to defeat that, too. Edwards, said there are clear precedents that procedures for adopting amendments do not require the same two-thirds vote as amendments do.

The Equal Rights Amendment, which says that equal protection of the laws shall not be denied because of sex, is three states short of the 38 states necessary to ratify it as part of the Constitution.

The original seven-year deadline expires next March 22.

Legislatures in unratified states are finished meeting for this year, and it's highly unlikely ERA could win ratification in three states in the first three months of next year.

Proponents of the ERA say the deadline is an arbitrary one and debate should not be cut off because the issue is still viable. "There is no such thing as a time limit on equal opportunity," Rep. Helen Meyner (D-N.J.), said yesterday at a press conference attended by women members of Congress, two cabinet officers and other administration officials.

Opponents of the ERA, led by Phyllis Schlafly and her organization called "Stop ERA," contend the extension is "unfair" since it amounts to changing the rules near the end of the game.

"This isn't a game," Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), said yesterday. "This is a real issue."

Stewart Oneglia, who heads a Justice Department task force looking at laws containing sex discrimination, said women are in a "Catch 22" situation with regard to the courts, since courts will not scrutinize sex discrimination because ERA is pending in the states. As examples of sex discrimination, he cited women needing high school diplomas to join the military while men do not and families of male breadwinners being eligible for public assistance while families of female breadwinners are not.

Women are not adequately covered by the 14th Amendment, Onegla said. "The 14th Amendment did not give women the vote."