For much of the past decade, Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) and the civil and constitutional rights subcommittee he chairs have turned back attempts by conservatives to enact their social agenda by amending the Constitution.

Proposed amendments to authorize prayer in school and outlaw forced busing and abortion all died in the Judiciary subcommittee headed by the 75-year-old former FBI agent and World War II veteran, who has been the House's most staunch protector of the Bill of Rights during his 28 years in Congress.

So it was not surprising that Edwards looked anguished yesterday morning as his panel sent to the full Judiciary Committee a proposal to amend the Constitution to permit Congress and the states to outlaw flag desecration. The subcommittee's liberal majority had the votes to stop what Edwards considers a wrongheaded assault on the Bill of Rights, but House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) had promised supporters of the amendment a vote on the issue if the Supreme Court overturned -- as it did this week -- the statute Congress enacted last year to protect the flag.

The best that Edwards and his liberal Democratic colleagues could do was to urge that the amendment be rejected by the full committee and to pass a separate non-binding resolution condemning flag burning and restating Congress's support for the Bill of Rights.

That transparent effort to provide protection for lawmakers who plan to vote against the amendment drew howls of protest from conservative Republicans on the subcommittee.

"This is a patent attempt to provide political cover to people who for one reason or another oppose the amendment," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the panel's ranking Republican. "The majority party is having us waste the time of this committee and Congress . . . with political flimflam."

Yesterday's brief meeting of the Edwards subcommittee -- probably the most ideologically divided panel in Congress -- underscored the raw emotions and political stakes involved as Congress wrestles with the flag amendment. Many Republicans are salivating at the prospect of attacking Democratic opponents of the amendment in the same way that George Bush assailed Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis for his veto of mandatory Pledge of Allegiance legislation in Massachusetts. Many Democrats are openly fearful of the political consequences of opposing the amendment.

"The proponents of this amendment proposal have been taking the low road," Edwards charged yesterday. "They talk about 30-second sound bites and how effective they will be in the election." Then, quoting a famous rebuke to the late Sen. Joe McCarthy and his red-baiting ways, Edwards said: "Sir, have you no shame?"

Sensenbrenner and Rep. Craig T. James (R-Fla.), avoiding any mention of the political battles that will be fought over the issue, portrayed the amendment as merely a means of protecting a revered national symbol. "The flag," said James, "is more than a pretty piece of cloth flying from the flagpole."

But Edwards and his Democratic colleagues argued angrily that backers of the flag amendment were engaged in a cynical political ploy. "I'm not sure this amendment is about flag burning," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). "It is about the politics of reelection, it is about the politics of hypocrisy and manipulation."

As the subcommittee acted, opponents of the amendment were trying to round up the roughly 140 votes they will need in the House to prevent a two-thirds vote for approval -- an effort many Democrats feel is decidedly uphill.