Saying that flag burning "endangers the fabric of our country," President Bush yesterday renewed his call for a constitutional amendment to protect the flag as Republicans stepped up their political pressure on the Democrats to settle the issue by the Fourth of July.

After a morning meeting at which top congressional Republicans told the president the party should seize on the flag issue now that the Supreme Court has struck down legislation outlawing flag desecration, Bush turned a Rose Garden ceremony where he received a replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial into a forum for a sales pitch on the amendment.

"What the flag encapsules is too sacred to be abused," Bush said.

"I am for free speech," the president said in response to questions of whether it is necessary to tamper with the Bill of Rights. "But I am for protecting the flag against desecration. And the law books are full of restrictions on free speech. And we ought to have this be one of them."

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) disagreed with Bush on the need to change the Constitution. "I do not support amending the First Amendment," Foley said. "Flag burning isn't worth tampering with the most important repository of personal liberty that any country has ever established in its history."

While Foley said he would be "fairly active" in lobbying his colleagues, he added that the Democratic leadership would not take a party position on the amendment.

The Republicans signaled their political intentions on the issue yesterday morning when Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) emerged from the White House waving a small flag and blistering critics of the amendment.

"We're going to protect the American flag," he said. "And I think most Americans, the real people out there, are on our side."

Asked about a dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, who criticized politicians for manipulating the issue, Dole shot back: "As far as I know he's never run for political office. . . . If he wants to get out there and run, why go right ahead. He has a right to criticize those of us in politics and we have a right to criticize the court -- and they're wrong."

On Capitol Hill, Democrats scrambled for enough votes to block the amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority of each chamber for passage. House Democrats reported late yesterday they have about 130 votes against the amendment, still short of the roughly 140 needed to stop the measure.

One undecided member, Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), acknowledged the political dangers of voting against the amendment. "I saw what happened to Michael Dukakis {in the 1988 presidential campaign}, so I understand the flag issues have real visceral appeal," he said.

The House could vote on an amendment as early as next week. In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said his committee will hold hearings on June 21, with a floor vote possible by July 4.

Democrats are clearly worried about the political fallout in this election year over the upcoming vote. "You can't pull a Dukakis and file a legal brief to say why you voted against it," a Democratic Party official said, recalling the Democratic presidential candidate's inept rebuttal to Bush's attacks on Dukakis' veto of Pledge of Allegiance legislation in Massachusetts. "You've got to be strong."

Republicans continue to differ on how potent the issue will be politically. "If virtually everyone is for it, it's not very useful," said pollster Robert M. Teeter, a political adviser to Bush and the Republican National Committee.

Yesterday's Rose Garden ceremony was a contrast to the extravaganza Bush and other Republicans staged last June 30 at the Iwo Jima Memorial in launching their campaign for an amendment. There were no bands, and a single American flag stood on a small pole next to Bush's lecturn.

One White House official said Bush feels strongly about the issue, but another said the president "is not going to demagogue on this. That's what he's got Dole for."

Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.