IN THE ABSENCE of feasible avenues for action, the outrage expressed at the war that the government of Cambodia has been conducting against its own people has provided scant benefit to the victims. "Democratic Kampuchea," as it is called, having chosen isolation to impose its rule, has seemed immune to external protests. So it is especially gratifying that the United States is finally finding something helpful to do.

The first step has been to funnel aid to countries caring for Cambodian refugees. Some $8 million is now going for such refugees in Thailand - through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Earlier this year a mission dispatched by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) brought to the Congress's attention the plight of some 120,000 Cambodian refugees in Vietnam. The trouble was that, while Thailand is a friendly country with which the Untied States has close ties, Vietnam is unrecognized by the American government and regarded as an unacceptable regime by many American citizens. For people feeling that way about Vietnam, such as Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the problem was how to help the refugees without giving aid or approval to Vietnam. That is, of course, precisely what international organizations are for - in this case, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On that basis, Mr. Dole joined forces with Mr. Kennedy. The result was that the Congress has now put up its first funds for Cambodians in Vietnam. The money is small ($1.5 million), but the necessary precedent has been set.

A second step is pending - admission of some of those Cambodian refugees to the United States. There is a continuing and, in our view, rather tiresome argument in Washington over whether refugees should be admitted under the attorney general's "parole" authority or whether Congress should itself directly regulate the flow. But in this instance, both houses of Congress, not without some friction, have supported resolutions requesting the administration to use the parole authority to admit at least 15,000 Cambodians. Attorney General Griffin Bell, who has expressed reservations about use of the authority, is pondering the request.

We hope he responds promptly and positively. Resolution of the fine points of a Washington legal and jurisdictional dispute cannot be allowed priority over the relief of desperate people fleeing a wretched regime.