WASHINGTON -- There are several pointed political messages in the defection of 20 Republican senators against the so-called family cap on welfare.
The most important is that there are still some Republicans unwilling to go to any length either to make an ideological point or to punish the liberals and their constituencies.
There is also a clear warning to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole that he is taking a serious political risk as a presidential candidate if he continues kowtowing to the extremism of his rival from the far right, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
The family cap issue has not been finally settled, of course.
The provision denying added benefits to welfare mothers who have more babies is still part of the House version of welfare reform, so the final product will have to be put together in a conference committee.
But there was nothing equivocal about the 66-34 Senate vote. The Republicans who joined the solid Democratic minority were sending a message to their more ideologically intense colleagues in the House that there are, after all, some limits on how far they will go in reducing the federal government to ashes.
The welfare reform issue has always been politically charged, principally because so many taxpayers resent the use of their money for people they see as loafers.
One of Ronald Reagan's most appreciated "little stories" when he ran for president in 1980 was the one about the "welfare queen" in Chicago who drove her Cadillac to the welfare office and collected checks in dozens of different names.
The fact that at the time no such queen could be identified never bothered Reagan; voters understood the point, and if the documentation was a little fuzzy, so be it.
Candidate Bill Clinton also exploited the issue effectively in 1992, using his promise to "end welfare as we know it" and his demand for "responsibility" on the part of those who receive benefits as a way to identify himself as a "different kind of Democrat" -- meaning not another soft-headed liberal like Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.
So it should have come as no surprise when the ideologically driven Republicans in the House included a provision as tough as the cap.
Nor should it come as any surprise that Gramm, the Senate's version of Newt Gingrich, should declare that those who support the measure "stand on the high moral ground in this debate."
If there was anything surprising, it was Dole's willingness to accept such a harsh limit on benefits.
But the hard truth is that Dole has become persuaded that he must move conspicuously to the right to win the Republican nomination, even if it means -- as in this case -- that he is deserted by prominent supporters and longtime allies such as Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico.
Now he has been given the worst of both worlds. He has caved in to the conservatives and his leadership has been rejected by the moderates who recognized the family cap for what it was -- an attempt to demonstrate to the electorate that the new Republicans in charge are serious about cracking down on the loafers.
For President Clinton, there is some reason for feeling at least marginally better about his own prospects next year.
The ultraconservatives may control the Republican Party, but they may be going to extremes that cause some backlash from those who are uncomfortable with trying to balance the budget and provide tax reduction by denying support for children still to be born.
As a practical matter, there is good reason to wonder if any immediate savings can be realized from welfare reform.
Clinton's original plan, long since forgotten, envisioned a period of higher costs to pay for child care and job training for the mothers who receive benefits.
The Republicans are proceeding on the premise that sending the whole program back to the states will reduce its cost so long as strictures like the family cap are included.
Many voters, particularly in Republican primaries, are likely to applaud the tough line on welfare.
They will agree with Gramm's glib explanation that it is time for those riding in the wagon to get out and help pull it.
But that is just campaign rhetoric that won't solve the welfare problem, and the vote against the cap tells us that many Republicans understand that reality.