THE SENATE Appropriations Committee was right to strike from the Treasury money bill a rider that would have barred federal employees' health insurance programs for paying for abortions. The rider had been tacked onto the bill in the House at the last minute and was approved by a Senate subcommittee before the committee's 11-to-8 vote.

The committee's action may not avoid a fight over the subject on the Senate floor or in conference. But it helps direct public attention to what appears to be the next phase of the abortion controversy. Four states have already eliminated payments for these medical procedures from their employee health insurance programs. Other states will be asked to follow their lead next year, and the groundwork is apparently being laid for proposals that would attempt to prevent insurance companies from selling policies that contain abortion benefits.

The anti-abortion members of the House saw the rider they approved as the logical next step in their effort to keep government funds from being used to pay for activities they believe are morally wrong. It would eliminate, they argued, the contention that while Congress is willing to deny abortions to poor (and politically powerless) women, it is unwilling to deny them to middle-class women or to members of their own staffs.

But there is a difference between spending federal dollars for Medicaid -- where these members have won their fight at least temporarily -- and spending for their employees' insurance. The former is a service provided by the government to some citizens; the latter is an insurance benefit -- negotiated by those who work for the government and, in effect, purchased by them. In addition to interfering with employee bargaining, the House-approved insurance rider would open the way for legislative tinkering with other employee benefits (such as psychiatric care) that some congressmen disapprove of.

The zeal with which the opponents of abortion are pursuing their campaign is remarkable. But where will it end? Is there any difference, in terms of the principle they are attempting to establish, between the federal dollars that pay for an abortion through an insurance program and the ones that pay for an abortion through an employee's paycheck? Clearly, they think not. The insurance rider could start Congress down a road of regularly interfering in the personal lives of all government employees.