The growing number and influence of working mothers has given rise to a potent, family-centered political constituency that has catapulted child care support high up on the nation's legislative agenda.

"The issue is taking on a momentum that's making it virtually irresistible," said Jerry Klepner, legislative director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. "It's very possible to get a bill through the Congress and to the president this year."

Not since 1971, when President Richard Nixon vetoed a major child care initiative, has the issue received so much attention. Legislation is moving through Congress aimed at increasing the availability of public and private day care facilities. Although there are political differences about how to increase child care support, the goal is one of the few that Republican and Democratic lawmakers appear to agree on.

A major part of the new-found support for the issue comes from the demographic power of the baby boom generation. The issue of who will mind the children while mother is at work is one that has long vexed single parents and low-income working mothers. But the entry of middle-class working mothers who are as protective of their careers as of their families has given a new momentum to the issue.

3/5ince the 1950s, the number of working women with preschool children has more than quadrupled. Today more than half of all women with children younger than 6 are now in the work force and by the mid-1990s, two-thirds of all preschool age children are expected to have mothers who work outside the home.

"This has suddenly become the phenomenon that strikes at all economic levels," said Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, who also believes that employers' concerns about future labor shortages are driving the new-found interest in day care.

Polls document that family issues are fast emerging as a critical domestic issue, with a poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News showing that 80 percent of so-called "new collar," or baby boom, workers think government should do more to improve child care and help working parents.

The issue is moving so fast that Labor Secretary Ann D. McLaughlin has set up a special task force to shape an administration position by early March. "Obviously we're on a fast track," a member of the task force said last week.

McLaughlin has broached the subject with both President Reagan and White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. "It's a percolating issue the administration is going to have to come to grips with," a McLaughlin aide said.

Perhaps the most startling development was the conversion of conservative Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) to the child care issue. Four years ago, Hatch was firmly on record against the federal government directly funding child care. Today, he is a key congressional proponent of a national child care policy with a bill of his own. He still thinks children are better off if a parent stays at home, but child care now is his "number one legislative issue."

Observers note, however, that while there is growing momentum for action on the child care front, there is a lack of focus on how to proceed.

"My nose tells me there is a powerful interest in how we raise the next generation, but that does not translate neatly into compelling popular support for specific programs that are largely funded and defined by the federal government," said Ralph Whitehead Jr., a professor at the University of Massachusetts who has studied baby boomers and work and family life.

There is growing bipartisan agreement, however, that something needs to be done to increase the number of day care centers -- now estimated at 63,000 licensed facilities nationwide. This is particularly true in the House where a package of labor bills ranging from mandated health insurance and parental leave to increasing the federal minimum wage are the only new items on the legislative agenda. Almost all other bills, such as trade, welfare reform and catastrophic health insurance issues, are now before House-Senate conferences.

Family work-place issues have become so pressing that virtually every political group has begun to address them.

House Democrats held a special retreat last month in which family issues, including child care, dominated the discussion. Many at the retreat said they saw so-called "kids issues" as a way to recapture the family issue from the Republicans after Reagan leaves office.

Democratic presidential candidate Albert Gore has gone so far as to promise to convert the White House basement into a child care center for the children of mothers and fathers who work at the executive mansion. "If I'm elected president, child care will start close to home," the Tennessee Democrat said.

Last month, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) introduced a child care bill that would replace the current child care tax credit with a program of federal grants to states.

Even among traditionally reluctant business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, the child care issue has been moved to the top of this year's legislative agenda. This week, the Chamber's board of directors will consider a recommendation for a limited federal approach to child care. Next week, the NAM will take up the issue at a meeting of its legislative leaders.

The issue involves two very different approaches and constituencies: The Act for Better Child Care Services has become the basic Democratic bill. Sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the primary focus of the proposal is affordable child care for low and moderate income families. Federal block grants would be used to provide an incentive for state matching funds. The bill would set federal standards for operating a child care center.

The Child Care Services Improvement Act is the Republican approach that is expected to appeal to business. Sponsored by Hatch and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), the bill uses a more modest block grant approach than the ABC bill, supplemented by tax credits for employers that establish on-site centers. It also limits the legal liability of child care center operators. Unlike the ABC bill, which targets lower income workers, the Hatch proposal has no income test. Johnson and Hatch plan to introduce a "fine-tuned" version of their proposal Feb. 22.

The Hatch bill deals with more traditional conservative concerns. "The differences between the two bills are pretty stark," Hatch said. "They {backers of the ABC bill} just seem to throw money at it from the top. They will create a huge social spending bureaucracy."

Hatch said, "there's a natural fear by conservatives that this is another big federal program injecting itself into family life."

Dodd rejects the Hatch approach as far as giving tax credits to business is concerned. "My bill is low income, that's where the real problem is. I'll be damned if it should go to people who can afford it already. There's a fundamental difference in the constituencies we're aiming at here," Dodd said.

Despite this tough rhetoric, there already were signs that both sides might be willing to compromise on a child care bill.

A Senate Labor Committee aide said that because of the slim Democratic majority in the Senate there could be no bill unless it accommodates Hatch. "The Hatch bill is a very interesting bill. He put a lot of thought into it," she said.

Hatch agrees there can be no bill without his approval. "There's no way child care will pass without conservative support," he said. "We will have to compromise on this and create a consensus. I intend to do that."

Another key to any eventual compromise will be the absence of any mandated government program.

Neither bill moves in that direction. Currently there are a variety of federal programs that for years have made child care part of an array of options authorized, but not required. The McLaughlin task force at the Department of Labor has identified dozens of programs ranging from the Job Corps to Aid For Dependant Children that authorize some form of child care.

In addition to the exposure the issue is getting from many of the presidential candidates, organizations such as the Great American Family Tour are trying to generate grass roots pressure in key cities before the March 8 Super Tuesday primary elections. "The road to the White House has to go through family policy issues," said Kathy Bonk, spokeswoman for the tour.

The Family Tour is an effort by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), Harvard University pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and Gary Goldberg, producer of the television series "Family Ties" to push family issues during the presidential campaign through speeches, rallies and meetings with local and state officials.

Similarly, The Coalition of Labor Union Women, an AFL-CIO affiliate, will hold on May 14 a rally in Washington to push family policy and legislation.

The expectation of many in Congress and among advocacy groups is that business will play a growing role in meeting day care needs.

Currently, according to estimates by the Conference Board, a business research organization, only about 3,000 companies offer child care options to employees either through centers or through the administration of a federal tax subsidy program. Parents now can deduct a portion of their annual child care expenses. In addition, where a company has established a flexible benefits plan, employees can shelter some of their income for child care expenses.

"The private sector isn't responding creatively at all to a work force of parents instead of a work force of men and a few mothers who occasionally have problems," said Rep. Johnson.

Although business is against any kind of mandated benefits, such as proposed legislation for family and medical leave, its attitude is beginning to change toward accommodating employees with family needs, some analysts say. "I'm sensing that work and family concerns are becoming much more mainstream throughout the corporate culture," said Dana B. Friedman, senior research associate for the Conference Board. About 120 companies are expected to attend a Conference Board briefing this week on what the role of the corporation should be in the debate over child care.

A relatively small number of companies already are providing child care.

The answers on the child care dilemma are not easy for either government or business because almost every work site brings with it a different set of circumstances and solutions.

"It's still a female issue," said Oliver Mann, who operates a day care facility for the Campbell Soup Co. "Poor women always had the child problem. Until middle class women got into the work place, this was never an issue. It's an equal opportunity issue."

---------------OPINIONS ON CHILD-CARE--------------

Q. Is it your impression that there are enough child-care facilities in this country to provide for current needs, or that there are not enough child-care facilities?

Enough.............26%

Not enough.........53

No answer..........21

Q. The government should develop policies to help make child-care services more available and affordable for these people.

Agree.............71%

Disagree..........23

No answer..........6

Washington Post/ABC News Poll, January 1987

Q. Should government do more to provide day care?

.............. TOTAL......MEN.............WOMEN

Yes ...........54% ..... 51%............ 56%

No ........... 43 ....... 48 ............ 39

Q. Should business provide day care?

...............TOTAL......MEN.............WOMEN

Yes........... 51% .......46% ........... 56%

No ............39 ....... 46 ............ 34

Time Magazine, June 1987

SOURCE: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees