Out or respect for the dying, many dedicated friends of the District of Columbia congressional-representation amendment still talk about this proposal in the present tense. But away from others and in suitably hushed tones, they will acknowledge that the proposed constitutional amendment -- for which people in many states across the country worked so hard -- is terminally ill. The official pronouncement won't be made until Aug. 22, the deadline for getting the approval of 38 state legislatures; yet the count now is only 16 and holding, with not enough legislatures in session to make the total, anyway.

Then what? After nearly two centuries of attempts to achieve the full rights of citizenship for Americans who live in the District, it's neither easy nor good to drop the pursuit of democracy and of the end of taxation without representation here -- and that is why more and more people are considering the ramifications of statehood. But up to now, some of statehood's worst enemies have been its most fervent advocates -- those who became wedded to a draft state constitution so larded with extreme and even crazy provisions that it was certain to be permanently ig by Congress.

The constitution did win the approval of District voters in 1982, which kept the issue alive. Since then a task force of congressional and local supporters has come up with a markedly revised version of the draft constitution -- eliminating some of the worst provisions. It is a constructive effort that could produce new congresssional understanding and support for some eventual recognition of new status for the District.

It is particularly significant that the task force included Charles I. Cassell, who served as president of the District's statehood convention, and who had supported the constitution as approved then. He and others who have worked for about a year on proposed amendments are now trying to focus congressional attention on the issue of statehood -- instead of on controversial proposals in a draft.

Items eliminated or modified in the task-force draft include guaranteed rights to abortion and unorthodox sexual behavior between consenting adults; guarantees of government-sponsored jobs and loans for all District residents; and the right of all public employees to strike. Other language changes have been made to clarify vague provisions and to narrow some of the most sweeping proposals.

No one is calling this the perfect draft, and congressional hearings surely will raise other concerns. But the task force has made a good-faith effort to attract serious attention to the issue -- and that is an essential first step to any sensible, substantive change.