THE MOMENT is right for a change in the 27-year-old basic law setting the terms on which the United States fulfills one of its primary obligations to the international community and to its own ideals -- taking in refugees. Downtown, the president has the necessary commitment, and the relevant executivebranch departments, especially State and Justice, have finally achieved the necessary consensus. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward Kennedy's ascent to the chairmanship of the Justice Committee eliminates a longstanding Senate bottleneck; and an essentially like-minded Elizabeth Holtzman now holds the key House Judiciary subcommittee chairmanship -- Chairman Peter Rodino is supportive, too. They were consulted in the drafting of the new refugee bill the administration is submitting now.

The bill would alter the post-World War II era definition of refugee, one which favored people fleeing communist countries (and the Middle East), and install a more universal standard based on uprootedness rather than ideology. The reason for this is not that henceforth the United States should trim its hospitality to refugees from communist regimes, which still, after all, generate large numbers of refugees. The reason is that, in recent decades, Americans have sharpened their sensitivity to the plight of refugees created by other lands. It is a sad comment on the turbulence of contemporary politics that the refugee condition, stemming from a deep conflict between individuals and their homeland regimes, is as pervasive as it is. The United States, with its tradition of openness and its global political involvements, cannot fail to adjust its definition of refugee to these dismal new circumstances.

The new bill would not simply open the gates, though it likely will be attacked -- disingenuously -- on those grounds. A basic annual quota of 50,000 refugees would be set. This is about double the number of refugees who will arrive this year anyway; it is somewhat more than the 30-year average; it is barely 10 percent of regular legal immigration and a tiny fraction of the illegal flow. Inother words, the numbers are nominal. Realistic studies show, moreover, that the economic burden imposed by arriving refugees is more than compensated for by the contribution they eventually make to their adopted land. The new bill would regularize financing of the federal share of the resettlement process.

The most controversial part of the new legislation will probably be its proposals for dividing power between the president and Congress when it comes to responding to emergency flows of refugees over the 50,000 line. These flows are inherently difficult to plan for but, once they happen, the uprooted people, adrift and often destitute, must be cared for expeditiously. If these two requirements, especially the second, are heeded, it should be possible the find a formula combining acceptable measures of executive flexibility and congressional control.

This new legislation would establish for the first time a comprehensive United States approach to refugee resettlement and assistance. Its aim is to ensure that American refugee policy serves both the general national interests of the United States and the specific personal requirements of thousands of individuals in distress. Few bills wortheir of support are likely to come before Congress this year.