When the District's rent control debate began three months ago, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke could not have asked for better odds.

Clarke had six of the seven votes he needed for a bill to continue the current rent control law, and hundreds of tenants promised to lobby for the measure.

On the other hand, John Ray (D-At Large), author of a controversial bill to phase it out, had only two firm votes, including his own. And he faced angry crowds throughout the city as he met with community groups to explain his position.

Yet in a three-hour council meeting on Tuesday, Clarke's six votes were trumped by a solid seven-vote bloc that handed the chairman a major defeat by drastically modifying his bill -- and making it much more like what Ray had wanted in the first place.

"The coach is supposed to win a one-run ball game," said Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), who supported the Clarke bill.

"When you've got the chairman of the council on your side, and you've got six votes, you expect to win," said Smith.

But council members had ignored their "coach," meeting behind closed doors to form an unlikely seven-member coalition fashioned with old-fashioned political arm-twisting, vote trading and intrigue.

The council Tuesday gave initial approval to a bill that would allow landlords to raise the rents on vacant apartments by 12 percent, instead of the current 10 percent, and exempt all single-family rental houses from controls as they become vacant.

Buildings that are 80 percent vacant would also become exempt on a case-by-case basis and landlords who apply for a hardship petition would be authorized to receive a 12 percent, instead of 10 percent, rate of return on their properties.

What's more, the bill provides for the gradual phasing out of rent control, starting in four years.

Apartments would become exempt as they become vacant, provided that the city's overall vacancy rate exceeds 6 percent and a $15 million tenant subsidy fund is operating.

While the phase-out is hardly imminent -- the current vacancy rate is less than 3 percent -- its inclusion in the bill is anathema to tenants' organizations, who were thought nearly unbeatable in a city where renters form a 2-to-1 majority over homeowners.

Clarke and his supporters knew that his bill would likely be amended before finally being passed, and they decided against fashioning the amendments themselves and instead decided to wait until other members offered changes. When they did, the efforts toward compromise began.

In search of a seventh vote, Clarke and his supporters learned that some members were willing to vote for the Clarke bill if their amendments were accepted.

But Nadine P. Winter's (D-Ward 6) proposal to exempt single-family homes from rent control was rejected.

And Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) failed to get the Clarke group to accept her idea to give property owners assurances that any property now exempted from rent control would not be included at a later time without the District paying penalties.

Meanwhile, Ray and his one supporter, H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), were trying to organize a voting bloc of their own. Ray made it clear that he would revise his bill and that amendments from other members would be accepted.

In the District Building, Ray sometimes appeared to be directing traffic as members moved from one caucus meeting to another in an effort to form a seven-vote bloc.

The first formal meeting was held on April 5. The group met again Monday, and a last time an hour before Tuesday's council meeting began.

The council members involved in some or all of the meetings included Ray, Crawford, Winter, Schwartz, Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5).

They coalesced into the seven-vote majority that handed Clarke his defeat.

During the meetings, the members decided that it would be best if Jarvis, chairman of the housing committee, introduced a collective package of amendments.

Members wanted to distance themselves from Ray, who had already been labeled as anti-rent control by tenants.

"It was easier for people to vote for something that created a perception of a compromise," said a member of the group."

Mayor Marion Barry was also consulted about the amendments that were introduced.

"There was no threat of a veto," said Jarvis. "There was considerable discussion with the executive branch on the whole package."

As the council meeting approached, the Clarke group of six -- which included Smith, John Wilson (D-Ward 2), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) -- discovered that it was losing its leverage.

"I think they [the Ray group] would have put anything in that bill to come up with seven people," said Wilson.

"That was not our goal," he said. "I can't deal with this idea that something is better than nothing. Clarke was willing to compromise, but they kept raising the ante."

Clarke's group turned to Barry, who had previously objected to vacancy decontrol.

"He [Barry] went with the side that had the votes," said Smith.

"He didn't look at the impact it could have on the city and I'm disappointed. I know he has to pick and chose his fights, but this was a big one . . . . On this one, he blew it."

Barry was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment; Clarke also could not be reached.

Smith and others said they believe that the bill tentatively approved on Tuesday -- the council has to vote again on the measure in two weeks -- goes much further than the Ray bill that they rejected.

"I think it is terrible," said Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who had supported the Clarke bill. "It is a defeat for the tenants of the city. No question about it."