THE BIG HOUSE VOTE against reinstituting registration for the draft probably means the end of any prospect for substantive legislative action on the draft until after the 1980 elections. The issue will stay alive, though, on Capitol Hill. And this is just as well. Clearly, there has not been a national meeting of the minds. Proponents, looking at the draft chiefly as a narrow manpower issue, ask how else the services would be able to furnish the reserves to meet a Soviet invasion of Europe -- the key planning contingency. Opponents, seeing it more as a broad political issue, protest that the draft would bring an unnecessary and harmful degree of militarization in social policy and in foreign policy too. Somewhere in the middle are a lot of nervous and skeptical people who might not object to a draft in principle but who do not want to return to one until the case has been better made.

That strikes us as a good posture in which to pause and to study the question over the next year or two. The interval should allow the administration to better prove its contention that, with experience and some additional inducements, the all-volunteer force can be counted on with confidence to supply both peacetime and wartime manpower requirements. Alternately, the critics will be able to show more conclusively that there is no prudent alternative to the draft.The provision just rejected by the House would only have required the president to use the authority he already has (and has not invoked) to register 18-year-old men. The debate over the next two years will necessarily go beyond registration into the broader questions of what the nation's military manpower needs are, how they should be met, and what social and foreign policies they ought to serve.

One school of Americans feels that ending the draft was essentially a political act motivated by popular resistance to the inequities of the draft for the Vietnam war and, of course, by resistance to the war. With a fairer draft, it is said, and with a new consensus on a tougher military stand, it is only right and natural that the draft be brought back. Another school feels that ending the draft was a luxury permitted by the demographics and that as the number of young men turning 18 each year gets smaller, as it already is, the draft will have to be reintroduced, political questions notwithstanding.But these are precisely the questions that the continuing national argument must sort out.