Opponents of the Virginia tax on food today narrowly lost their bid to refund some food tax money to low-income families but plan to try Thursday to revive their original proposal to repeal the entire tax.

The House of Delegates voted down the compromise refund bill 51 to 43 this afternoon after several food tax opponents -- including two Northern Virginias -- broke ranks and voted against the measure. They contended the bill failed to provide any tax relief for middle-income families but said they would support a movement to repeal the tax altogether.

"They've taken a tax relief bill and made it into a welfare bill," complained Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), who along with fellow Republican Vincent F. Callahan of Fairfax voted against today's bill but said they would back full repeal.

Tonight, Del. Clinton Miller of Shenandoah, another Republican who voted against the defeated compromise refund bill, said he would move tomorrow that the House reconsider today's vote. He said the bill's sponsor, Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), would then move to amend his bill to make it a full repeal.

Today's strategy sessions were the latest development in the long and increasingly tortured history of the food tax repeal bill, which Stambaugh introduced four weeks ago.

The bill called for gradual repeal of the 4 percent tax, which voters in various polls have for years identified as the one tax they would most like to see removed. Faced with a conservative and hostile House Finance Committee, Stambaugh reluctantly agreed to a compromise bill. That measure would give families with incomes below $7,500 a year a state income tax credit of $33 per family member as a refund for annual food tax payments.

The refund bill narrowly passed the committe, 11 to 9, then won preliminary House approval yesterday, 47 to 45, in a show of hands, but several members changed their minds by today when the vote was recorded one.

"Upon reflection, I felt we were voting for a cop out," said Callahan. Both he and Barry noted the bill would do little for Northern Virginians, whose income levels generally exceed the bill's limits.

"It won't help people in Northern Virginia but you can bet we'll be asked to make up more than our share of the revenue loss from it," said Barry. a

Fellow Republican Martin H. Perper of Fairfax disagreed with Barry.

"The idea is to get something on the books," said Perper, who voted for the bill. "It was the best we could get out of the committee."

Some lawmakers said they were swayed by last-minute pleas from state consumer groups opposing the food tax who argued that, once the refund plan was enacted, the tax itself would never be repealed. Others said they have long believed the repeal bill stood a better chance of passage on the House floor than it did in the committee:

"If anyone is serious about repealing the food tax in Virginia, they should see this (Thursday's vote) as their only chance." said Del. Miller, who would not predict how the vote would go. "What do we have to lose? asked Miller.

Even if passed by the House, the food tax repeal bill faces rough going in the State Senate, where it must pass through the fiscally-conservative Senate Finance Committee. If passed by the Senate, it is then subject to possible veto by Republican Gov. John N. Dalton, who has warned lawmakers not to pass any tax cuts without also cutting state spending.

"If we worried in advance about a veto, we'd sit in a corner here and never do anything," said Miller.