There's this awful problem on Capitol Hill: America's bankruptcy judges want to ensure that they themselves never go bankrupt, and friends, have they got Congress in a snarl.

The snarl is over bigger pensions for the 230 federal bankruptcy judges. The House wants to give them cushy retirement; the Senate is against it, in part because the judges would get a better deal than senators.

Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) is insisting there will be no action on a more general bankruptcy bill this year without pensions for the judges. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) is insisting there will be no bill that includes pensions.

As a result, the bill to clear up some problems with federal bankruptcy law is bouncing between the two chambers like a hot potato. The Senate this week passed its version of the bill for the third time; the House has passed its twice.

And as the clock runs out on this Congress, with the ball in the House court and neither chamber willing to give in, prospects don't look too bright for the legislation. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), architect of the measure, was trying again last night to work out a compromise.

The Edwards-Thurmond clash wasn't the only one thwarting major legislation. Thurmond also was involved in a three-way test of wills that was holding up a federal court improvements act. The other players: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.).

A key provision of the bill would create a new Court of the Federal Circuit out of the present courts of Claims, Customs and Patent Appeals. Many lawyers and research-oriented firms, weary of court wrangling on patent questions, welcome the streamlining.

House and Senate Judiciary staffers informally worked out differences in their respective bills, setting the stage for final action.

But Kennedy was objecting to other language, offered by Bumpers, that would broaden federal court jurisdiction over regulatory agencies and their rule-making processes. Thurmond, for his part, was saying he would object -- and prevent Senate passage -- no matter what agreement Kennedy and Bumpers might reach.

Lodged in the path of clear thinking and quick progress on bankruptcy yesterday was the Senate's big continuing appropriations bill. Sneering critics referred to it on the floor as another of those famous Christmas trees, every bough loaded with a holiday bauble for some legislator.

One of these ornamental amendments had to do with another kind of hot potato, with Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) winning approval of an amendment to protect his state's potato growers from Canadian imports disguised as "seed" but actually sold for baking, frying and scalloping.

The Senate droned through most of the day with debate and votes on the big money bill, adding, subtracting, compounding, confusing, or something akin to that.

Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), for example, saying he had been misconstrued, backed off an amendment that would have given him, as future Energy Committee chairman, the power to veto additions to the wild and scenic rivers system.

In the air of wild and scenic confusion and missed cues, Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) padded onto the floor to make a speech against inclusion of five California rivers in the system. What made it interesting was that he gave the speech after the Senate already had amended McClure's amendment.

Hayakawa later told reporters he hadn't been lobbied on the rivers issue: "I'm seeing surprisingly few lobbyists these days. I think my staff screens them from me."

While the Senate was doing its thing with the big-bucks bill, the House was rejecting the Senate's version of new revenue-sharing legislation and sending back a take-it-or-leave-it version (that's what House sponsors called it).

The new House version would extend revenue sharing for three years, with states eligible for aid only after next year. And the House insisted, 337 to 19, on its provision -- which the Senate had rejected -- that states taking no-strings revenue sharing money must give up an equal sum in categorical aid.

There was another little matter bubbling up in the House, and in its tacit way, the chamber seemed to be acknowledging finally, fully and definitively that, Abscam or not, boys always are going to be boys.

Translation: The Democratic caucus responded to complaints that the House ethics committee should not be prosecutor, judge and jury all at once over errant members by approving a proposed rules change to split the committee in two.

The recommended change will go next year to the House Rules Committee, setting up a subcommittee to bring charges and another to try the bad guys. Make that the alleged bad guys.