Republican leaders in Congress should make child care a priority in 1999 budget talks soon to get under way, two senior Republican senators and a GOP governor said.

"Republicans in Congress have a role in addressing child care," Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., said Monday. Chafee, with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has proposed a child-care bill that would provide $15 billion to $16 billion over five years.The bill's main focus is expanding the dependent-care tax credit for stay-at-home parents - up to $900 per year per family - and increasing child-care block grants to the states. The tax credit is now available to working parents to offset the child-care costs.

The senators appeared at a news conference with Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond, a Republican who has proposed expanding his state's child-care entitlement, the only such entitlement in the nation.

Now, Rhode Island families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $24,500 for a family of three, receive a child-care subsidy. Almond's plan would raise the income threshold to 250 percent of poverty, or about $33,000 for a family of three.

"Congress and the president must step up to the plate to help me and other governors create a 21st century child-care system," Almond said.

Unlike Democrats who have linked child-care bills to future revenues from a tobacco tax, Chafee and Hatch have not identified a funding source for their bill. Both are opposed to using any money from a tobacco settlement, or a separate tobacco tax, for child care.

Their immediate goal is to convince colleagues on the Budget Committee to include child-care money as a priority in the budget outline that will be written in the coming weeks and considered by the full Senate next month. A funding source would be identified later.

The bill is an alternative to a $21.7 billion child-care program proposed by the Clinton administration that focuses on working parents. The Clinton plan combines subsidies for low-income parents, tax credits for middle-class parents and tax incentives for businesses that provide their workers with child care.