A deeply divided House Judiciary Committee yesterday cleared the way for the full House to vote on a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration, and Democratic leaders said they would reject Republican requests for a delay and push for a vote Thursday in hopes of killing the measure.

After a long and emotional debate, the Judiciary Committee voted 19 to 17 to send the proposed amendment to the floor of the House without a formal recommendation. Attempts to move it to the floor with either a favorable or unfavorable recommendation were narrowly defeated.

The committee action came as Democrats in both the House and Senate expressed growing confidence they can defeat the proposal, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers. The amendment would alter the Constitution to permit Congress and the states to pass laws prohibiting flag desecration. If it passes both houses, it would still have to be approved by 38 of the 50 state legislatures.

Republican supporters of the amendment pressed for a three-day delay that would put off a House vote until Tuesday. But opponents said the move was an effort to buy time so that veterans groups and others backing the change could intensify their lobbying. Both House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and House Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) insisted the vote will come Thursday.

The Rules panel, which is controlled by Democrats, has the power to waive the normal three-day "layover" before legislation goes to the floor, and Moakley said his committee would do so in this case.

"I think they {supporters} are looking for more time because they don't think they have the votes," Moakley said.

"We expect a vote on the flag amendment on Thursday," said Foley, who predicted a close vote.

The politically charged debate continued to intensify yesterday, just eight days after the Supreme Court revived it by overturning a statute Congress passed last year to prohibit flag desecration.

Senate Democrats indicated increasing confidence. Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) assailed President Bush for supporting the first change in the Bill of Rights in almost 200 years of American constitutional history.

"If someone burns the Constitution, would President Bush propose an amendment to the Constitution to prohibit that?" asked Mitchell in a floor speech. "If not, does that mean he has less respect for the Constitution than he does for the flag? If his answer is yes, then where does he draw the line? How about the Declaration of Independence?

"The point is that once the Bill of Rights is changed or amended, no line can be drawn," Mitchell said. "We Americans revere the flag. We also revere the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We need not choose between them."

Senate Democratic Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) told reporters he is "convinced" the Senate will reject the amendment. Cranston said his count shows 54 senators favor the change, 24 oppose it and 22 are undecided, with enough of those undecided leaning toward opposition to kill the amendment.

Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee rejected charges that the flag amendment is a door-opening assault on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

"I view this as a First Amendment restoration act," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). He argued that the freedom of speech has never been an "absolute" and has been restricted to prevent such activities as yelling fire in a theater and shouting obscenities.

Though both sides lamented the political demagoguery that has accompanied the flag debate, the political stakes involved are still close to the surface.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) argued the flag should be protected as the "transcendent symbol of our unity and community as Americans," adding that the debate underscores a clash of political cultures.

"I view this as one more struggle in the culture war that has been raging since Vietnam," Hyde said. "Those who are shocked, revolted and frustrated by the excesses of the counter-culture -- the pornography and obscenity that inundates our entertainment industry, the drugs, the AIDS explosion, the high abortion rate -- view flag-burning as one more slap in the face of the millions of veterans who found enough values in America to risk their lives in combat."

Staff writers Helen Dewar and John E. Yang contributed to this report.