Prospects for enactment of compromise legislation to overhaul the campaign finance system before Congress adjourns are growing dimmer by the day.

The House and the Senate each passed separate bills to revise campaign financing laws during the summer, but lawmakers remain sharply divided over key provisions of the competing measures and distracted by other pressing business as they scramble to get out of town in time for campaigning before the Nov. 6 elections.

"Time is too short, and the differences are too great," Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) said in a terse summary of lawmakers' expectations as the House-Senate conference prepares to hold its first meeting, perhaps next week.

There is also little pressure for compromise from rank-and-file lawmakers, many of whom fear that proposed changes, such as curbs on contributions by political action committees (PACs), will undermine the fund-raising advantages they currently enjoy as incumbents.

With continued stalemate, members can go home claiming to have voted during the summer for "reform" without suffering the consequences that may come from enactment of the legislation.

Senators also can claim to have voted to stop accepting honoraria for speeches to special interest groups without losing any money in the process.

The honoraria ban was approved as part of the Senate campaign finance bill and will die if the bill is not enacted. It could be revived in separate legislation, but an aide to Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said Dodd will await results of the campaign finance conference before making any further move. The House already has banned members from accepting honoraria, starting Jan. 1.

With a drumbeat of veto threats from the White House, intense partisan divisions over spending limits and disagreement even among Democrats over such key issues as how far to go in curbing PACs, chances for final agreement on a campaign finance bill never were great. They have not improved with time.

But some members, such as Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), a leader in the failed attempt to strengthen the House bill, argue that Congress will go home without a bill at its own peril. "There's a real prairie fire out there," said Synar, referring to voter anger that is surfacing in elections, including the Sept. 18 approval in Oklahoma of a 12-year limit on state legislators' time in office.

"As long as people think the special interests have Congress in gridlock, they won't have confidence in anything we do," Synar said. "I don't know how many more wake-up calls Congress will get."

Others, including Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), chief sponsor of the House bill and head of the House negotiating team for the conference, say Synar's fears are exaggerated.

While acknowledging that "people are upset and want Congress to deliver," Swift questioned how much voters care about revisions in campaign finance laws. While they are upset about the soaring costs of campaigns and the time-consuming nature of fund-raising, he said, they also oppose public funding of campaigns even as a mechanism for enforcing voluntary spending limits.

Both bills set voluntary spending limits with incentives for compliance but agree on little else.

The Senate seeks to ban PACs, which the House, whose members are far more dependent on PAC contributions, would retain under new but rather generous contribution limits. Also, the Senate would use public financing, opposed by most House members, to encourage candidates to abide by spending limits. And even if House and Senate negotiators could agree among themselves, they face a veto threat from President Bush, who has said he will not sign legislation that limits spending.

Although the Senate approved its bill Aug. 1 and the House followed with its version Aug. 3, it was not until the last few days that both houses named conferees. As of yesterday, no conference meeting had been scheduled, although Congress is hoping to wind up work for the year in a couple of weeks.

"Anyone who says the chances {of agreement} are good is lying to himself or someone else, but we have got to try," said Swift. Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chief sponsor of the Senate bill and a senior negotiator for the Senate, said that the chances for a conference agreement are probably no better than 1 in 4 but that "we owe it to the people, to the process, to make a real effort."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Boren's chief GOP antagonist in the Senate's three-year battle over the issue, regards the chances of compromise as "nil" and argued that the failure is a vindication of his contention that spending limits would impede participation in elections rather than encourage competitiveness.

Whenever the conferees meet, several difficult questions must be faced at the outset, according to the negotiators.

The conferees should first "flush out the president" on whether he will accept spending limits in any form, said Swift. "If he says no spending limits, then it's all over, it's dead," he said in an interview.

There is also the question of how far the conferees can go in creating different finance systems for House and Senate candidates beyond obvious differences in spending limits for statewide and congressional district campaigns, including the sensitive issue of PAC spending. House members can be expected to insist on more generous treatment of PACs than senators want.

While some may be willing to settle for whatever they can get, others, including Boren, say they would rather wait for far-reaching reforms that include spending limits, strong PAC curbs and control of unregulated, so-called "soft" money.

A poor bill would be worse than none at all, said the Oklahoman. "People," Boren added, "understand the difference between a real effort and a charade."

Limits out-of-state contributions to $250 per candidate.

Limits use of personal funds to $250,000 by candidates who receive incentives for compliance with spending limits.

Prohibits senators from sending out taxpayer-financed mass mailings in years when they are up for reelection. Both Bills

Tighten restrictions on so-called "independent" expenditures, "bundling" of campaign contributions and use of unregulated "soft" money that flows through political parties and other entities. Attempt to increase candidate responsibility for television advertising.