The House of Representatives, a bastion of antiabortion sentiment since the Republican takeover in 1995, has quietly become more supportive of abortion rights this year, according to lawmakers and activists on both sides of the issue.

The surprising shift results both from a modest increase in the number of lawmakers who favor abortion rights as well as a deliberate--if little-publicized--effort by GOP leaders to deemphasize the issue in the annual process of crafting spending bills.

The House leadership has worked hard this fall to prevent conservatives from attaching abortion restrictions to appropriations bills, reversing its previous strategy of trying to strip abortion protections and family planning initiatives that Democrats had championed.

This month, for instance, Republicans shepherded a foreign aid bill that provided $25 million in international family planning funds Congress had eliminated last year while resisting efforts to impose abortion-related restrictions on the money. Clinton vetoed the bill anyway, arguing it did not provide enough funding for his international priorities.

House leaders say they are clamping down on abortion provisions, known as "riders," in order to draw a sharp distinction between Republicans and President Clinton on fiscal responsibility.

Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said congressional Republicans want "to give the president as little reason to veto as necessary for reasons other than money." Asking abortion opponents to withhold their amendments "is a tough thing to do," he said, because "this is an issue of the heart."

The strategy has antagonized some of the GOP's most staunch allies, including socially conservative groups that have lobbied aggressively for limits on federal funding for abortion and family planning services.

"There's some frustration that it's basically the social issues that have been jettisoned," said Eagle Forum executive director Sheila Moloney. "There's only so many times the grass roots are going to make these phone calls, recognizing that nothing's going to happen."

When Republicans first seized the majority, they imposed an array of abortion-related restrictions. These included a ban on abortion funding for women in federal prisons and for poor women in the District, as well as a prohibition on abortions at military bases and on abortion coverage in federal employees' health plans.

While these limits remain in place, reproductive rights advocates have made inroads on other fronts this year. Beyond the effort to keep the foreign aid bill free of family planning restrictions, lawmakers also agreed for the second year in a row to provide contraception coverage for federal employees, as well as to drop language in the agriculture spending bill prohibiting the Food and Drug Administration from considering whether to approve the use of the abortion pill commonly known as RU-486.

Conservatives on the Appropriations Committee also agreed with the leadership to resist offering abortion-related amendments to the bill funding the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments.

One measure would have required parental notice for contraception offered to minors by federally funded clinics, another would have prohibited those facilities from housing an abortion clinic in the same building and a third would have banned the use of embryos in federal stem-cell research.

"I'm disappointed we haven't made more progress this year," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), who refrained from offering the amendment on abortion clinics. "We've had less opportunities for victories in Congress this year because we've agreed with the priorities leadership has put forward."

Part of the change in abortion policy stems from last fall's election results: The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League estimates it picked up seven more supporters, while the Planned Parenthood Federation pegs the number at nine.

Some conservatives note that the House has passed two high-profile antiabortion bills this year. One would prohibit adults from circumventing a state's abortion laws by taking a teenager across state lines; the other would make it a separate federal crime to injure a fetus when attacking a pregnant woman. Clinton has vowed to veto both measures and neither has passed the Senate, which yesterday took up a bill to ban certain kinds of late-term abortions.

"From the pro-life perspective, probably the best word to use might be retrenchment," said Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.).

But Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt said she believes her side has made modest gains against the antiabortion forces. "We have been able to push them back a little," she said.

CAPTION: House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, left, with Whip Tom DeLay, has fought antiabortion "riders" on bills.