FEDERAL child-care legislation has nearly completed its crawl toward enactment. If the hurdles presented by the current budget reconciliation process in Congress are cleared, parents struggling to find and afford good care for their children will get some overdue help. The bills pieced together in the Senate and House bear only a rough resemblance to their infant selves. Compromise and bargaining molded and merged once opposing approaches.
Democrats, by and large, have pushed for substantial direct payments to low-income parents; Republicans emphasize the use of tax credits. Both these means of reducing the burden of child-care expenses are included in the legislation being sifted through conference committees.
Congress's finished product - if one is forthcoming this year as hoped - will probably offer varying degrees of aid to a wide swath of Americans, middle- and upper- as well as lower-income. That's not really a strength, since the help should be concentrated squarely on the poor, who face the harshest child-care dilemmas. But the politicians working on the bills are well aware of, and responsive to, the broad public support for legislation in this area. Telling statistics - for example, that 57 percent of mothers with preschool children now work away from home - couldn't be ignored.
Even with considerable bipartisan backing, however, the child-care bills haven't had it easy. The final legislation may face a veto threat from President Bush if it comes downs too heavily for grants instead of tax credits and proposes nationwide standards for child care. The odds, however, are against Mr. Bush risking an anti-child-care tag.
Philsophical objections to governmental intrusion into a family's decisions on care - though muted compared with the past - have certainly been heard. This is to the good, since those concerns ought to be weighed and safeguards built in against new regulation constricting a parent's choice instead of broadening it.
A sensitive area in this regard is church-provided child care. Federal funding should not go to facilities that make religious instruction an explicit part of their program. But many child-care operations housed in church buildings are community services open to all. The legislation should certainly make these distinctions.
The use of federal money to help set and enforce standards for care givers also raises some hackles. The concern is valid. Formal standards shouldn't be applied rigidly to small-scale ``family day-care'' operations. Such home-based care serves millions of parents. But standards, if thoughtfully and flexibly applied, can help bring recognition and stature to a profession that amply deserves them, as well as address important matters of safety.
Child care is a pervasive concern today. A tiny, few-billion-dollar slice of the federal pie is in the process of being set aside for it. If that money reaches people determined to help families that need reliable care and those who want to provide it, it will be well spent.