Washington — The long-awaited great debate over abortion has arrived, but it looks more like a family squabble. Far from expounding on the moral issues, the US Senate is squabbling over such matters as who gets to speak first.
Even so, the debate-filibuster points to an underlying mood in the upper chamber. Despite its conservative leanings, the Senate is uncomfortable with stringent new restrictions on abortion rights.
Supporters of the right to choose abortion have already proclaimed a victory. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R) of Connecticut has declared the issue ''dead for this session.''
Anti-abortion leader Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina has been forced to rewrite his proposals to attract more votes. Rather than proclaiming that human life begins at conception, his new legislation would state that the Supreme Court erred in 1973 when it ruled that women have the abortion rights.
Further, he has added a provision to strip federal courts of jurisdiction in school prayer cases.
As the week ends, Republican Whip Ted Stevens of Alaska was predicting that the new package would lose. It was already clear that abortion foes could not come close to the two-thirds majority required to pass a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
In fact, anti-abortion groups are happy that the amendment sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah has never reached a floor vote. ''Many of us feared an amendment defeat,'' says John Mackey, chief lobbyist for the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, an anti-abortion coalition.
Meanwhile, Nanette Falkenberg, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), has consistently claimed that her side held the majority on any major new abortion restrictions. The Senate could pass a permanent law to enforce the current ban on funding for abortions, she says, but ''if you put it in perspective with what was going to happen in these two years, it is an expression of our strength.''
Despite the powerful and highly organized anti-abortion movement, several factors are now at work on behalf of the pro-choice camp. Among them:
* National polls continue to show that the majority of Americans, while they may disapprove of abortion, do not want an absolute ban on the right to choose it.
* Members of Congress face reelection in two months, and many would like to avoid any vote on abortion.
* Abortion rights supporters have taken a page out of the book of their opponents. They have organized at a grass-roots level.
NARAL has taken the constitutional amendment threat seriously in the past year. The pro-choice group targeted 17 states for intensive activity in which members recruited supporters through meetings in homes. Volunteers then attended political-skills workshops to prepare for a fight against ratifying such an amendment in state legislatures.
NARAL even has a modest political action committee to donate about $750,000 to political candidates.
In the current abortion debate, the pro-choice side is attempting to flood Senate offices with telephone calls. A spokesman for Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen (D) of Texas says his Washington office received 10 calls from pro-choice advocates for every one call from pro-life forces on one day this week.
While pro-choice forces see a victory in their grasp, anti-abortion lobbyist Mackey holds that the week has given new life to ''pro-life'' forces. ''There was some question whether we'd even get to the abortion issue,'' he says, adding that his side will win even if the Helms measures fail.
''We want that vote,'' says Mr. Mackey. ''We do want to see where everybody stands.'' He says that he is encouraged that there will be a vote, since the abortion amendment is part of the debate over lifting the national debt ceiling, which must be approved to keep the government from shutting down at the end of next month.
Like NARAL, the anti-abortion groups have political action groups which will be active in next fall's elections. The Senate vote would be a litmus test for these groups in deciding who are their friends and who are not.