It was clear at the end that the House just did not have the stomach for the job.

There on the floor Friday evening Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.) was accepting the embraces and good wishes, rather than the censure, of his colleagues.

Just moments before, the House had voted 219 to 170 to reject the censure recommendation - and evidence that Roybal had lied repeatedly under oath - of its internal investigating committee. It directed that the proposed penalty be reduced to a reprimand.

To some disheartened members of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, that one action raises new doubts about the ability of Congress to discipline its own and about the future of the ethics committee.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), a respected member of the committee, said yesterday that he felt the harsher penalty was warranted. But he remained silent during the debate.

"I don't think I had much taste for laying out the evidence against a colleague," he said. "The vote wasn't based on the testimony. Ed and his supporters didn't speak to the evidence. And the result does make me wonder about the role of the ethics committee, very frankly . . .

"As you came down to the crunch, you saw a lot of drawing back. It wasn't so much a vote on the Roybal case as a lashing back at the whole ethics issue," Hamilton added.

"We're at a fairly critical point in the development of the committee," he said, noting upcoming cases involved Reps. Joshua Eilberg and Daniel J. Flood, both Pennsylvania Democrats, and Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.). "Does the House want an active ethics committee? That is in doubt."

The committee had determined, after months of investigation, that Roybal had failed to report a $1,000 cash contribution from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park, converted the funds to his personal use and then lied about the transaction several times under oath, in depositions, to the committee.

The members unanimously agreed that Roybal was the first colleague in half a century to merit censure. They felt the findings against Roybal were much more serious, because of the alleged perjury, than those against Reps. John J. McFall and Charles H. Wilson, two other California Democrats who were reprimanded for their roles in the South Korean influence-buying scandal.

"We cannot, cannot allow a standard that says a member can lie repeatedly under oath to a duly constituted committee of this institution," said Rep. Millicent H. Fenwick (R-N.J.), a committee member so strict in judging conduct that she says colleagues have accused her of playing God.

"The tragedy is that [the Roybal case] was a bona fide effort to declare what our standards are . . . The result was a very grave declaration to make to the American public . . . I think it's a great blow to the dignity of the Congress," Fenwick said.

She added that she was beginning to think that the committee should be abolished and replaced by a special prosecutor.

Rep. John J. Flynt Jr. (D-Ga.), the retiring chairman of the committee, said he too was disappointed by the House's rejection of the proposed Roybal censure.

Flynt, who was criticized often for a lack of zeal during the 18-month investigation, impressed observers with his forceful presentation of the three cases. But he got little help from others.

"If we had a little more support from the leadership and the unanimous backing of our committee members on the floor, I think the recommendation would have been sustained," he said.

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) chaired the entire debate on the disciplinary matters. But the leadership made no apparent effort to back Flynt's committee. Some ethics committee members felt that O'Neill actively helped Roybal's capaign to reduce the penalty.

An O'Neill aide denied that the speaker picked sides. "The House just worked its will," the aide said.

Roybal's supporters certainly spared nothing in their effort to overturn the censure proposal. They claimed that Roybal was being treated more severely than McFall or Wilson because he was Hispanic.

And one even suggested that committee investigators tried to break into Roybal's office, though the date of the alleged burglary was three days after the committee had found the congressman guilty.

John W. Nields Jr., chief counsel of the investigating staff, said he was "profoundly distressed" by the outcome of the Roybal case.

"I have always viewed the overriding issue in this job as whether the House could police itself," Nields said. "I consider that very important, because public confidence can be restored that way. I always thought the House could do the job.

"For the first time yesterday, I began to have very big doubts."