When Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) bowed out of the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination after running into trouble for borrowing quotations without proper attribution, some of his colleagues found reason to pause -- virtually at midsentence.

On Tuesday, during debate on legislation to revive the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) observed: "Since rhetoric gets such careful scrutiny from the media these days, let me say I am paraphrasing remarks of Winston Churchill when I say that the agreement we have reached is not the end of our need to act, nor the beginning of the end -- but it is the end of the beginning."

In a Senate floor speech yesterday, Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) was arguing against precipitous action on a nuclear testing moratorium when he groped for an appropriate quotation and the proper attribution. "To give Orson Wells credit," the Senate should not try to do something "before its time," he said, referring to a television commercial in which the late actor promoted a domestic wine. "Everything in its time," he added, carefully attributing the observation to "someone else."

At a news conference Wednesday to urge passage of legislation invoking the War Powers Resolution in the Persian Gulf, Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) was criticizing his colleagues for lacking the will to challenge the president when they believe his policies are wrong.

What is especially distressing is "to see ourselves be our own executioners," Weicker said. "And I gladly attribute that to John Donne," he added hastily.

A footnote: Weicker didn't exactly get the quote right. Donne, the 17th-century poet, actually said in 1624, "I do nothing upon myself, and yet am mine own executioner."

A little further research shows there just may have been some mild plagiarism in the 17th century, too. In 1640, Sir Thomas Browne, a physician and writer, said, "Yet is every man his greatest enemy, and as it were, his own executioner."

The more things change . . . .