PRESIDENT BUSH doesn't usually lose much sleep thinking about new ways to help the poor. So he must have faced a real dilemma recently when Congress was getting ready to add money to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), because more money for heating assistance won't just help the poor, but would ultimately also benefit the oil companies.

For a while, Bush stayed true to form and proposed slashing the program by more than $300 million. After a few governors from cold-weather states made direct appeals, Bush apparently had a change of heart, and he is now expected to sign a bill that Congress passed yesterday that would increase fuel-assistance funding by more than $400 million to help the needy.

We hope he doesn't hesitate, especially since this measure so closely follows his signing of an energy bill that will require new fuel standards for automobiles, and mandates new conservation measures. (A good start, but one we should have seen long before this.)

With a cold winter already upon us and with heating-oil prices expected to increase 25 percent this winter, LIHEAP, which provides cash and crisis grants, can be a lifeline for people struggling to cover the essentials - like food, shelter and heat.

Pennsylvania administers about $150 million in federal cash and crisis grants. Already the number of applications for cash grants is 14,000 more than last year. Crisis-grant applications are up by more than 10,000. That's a scary barometer of how many people could be in trouble this winter.

Two years ago, Harrisburg lawmakers approved $20 million in additional state LIHEAP funding, and there was hope at the time that the state would finally join many other cold-weather states in creating a separate state LIHEAP fund. But that state money was a one-time miracle.

We urge our state lawmakers to pay close attention this winter to the heating situation, and be prepared to step in with supplemental funding.

As it is, LIHEAP administers one-time grants that are too small to give anything but temporary aid to those with high heating bills. The increase in heating bills could hit $375 per household this winter. Meanwhile, the average LIHEAP cash grant is $235, which, as anyone who has nervously eyed a thermostat lately, is a drop in the bucket when it comes to averting a crisis. *