A White House plan to seize the initiative from the Democrats in the political maneuvering over the budget deficit faltered yesterday, leaving President Bush still on the defensive and some Republicans near revolt.

Bush called more than 150 GOP House and Senate members to the State Dining Room for a 30-minute rally that White House officials described as a declaration of war against the Democrats if they failed to produce a budget proposal before the August congressional recess begins at the end of this week.

But the declaration turned out to be far less than advertised, was made in private, not public, and White House and GOP officials disagreed over exactly what Bush said and what he meant. The only thing all sides agreed on was that Bush threatened to veto all spending bills that exceed his recommendations.

The handling of the event 86 days after the budget talks began produced gleeful statements from Democrats. "We are watching the Bush presidency unravel," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown. "Republicans seem able to agree only on scapegoating Democrats, two or three leaks of Dick Darman's latest budget thoughts and now a concerted effort to stiffen their timid president's backbone."

Republicans, particularly those up for election this year, have serious qualms about Bush's handling of the budget talks. Their angst was displayed by a recent House Republican Conference vote opposing tax increases the president has acknowledged were necessary for an agreement. At the end of last week, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) sent to key administration and GOP officials a memo that some Republicans now refer to as the "eight-count indictment" against the White House, sharply criticizing White House handling of the budget talks, and urging that they be broken off.

Yesterday's events were the latest example of the difficulty the administration has had in defining its goals for the budget talks while keeping restive Republicans in line. A senior official said the rally was intended as much to bolster low GOP morale as it was to shoot at the Democrats. "The president wanted to reassure his fellow Republicans he won't take this sitting down, but he's not quite ready to stand up" because that could make the September talks harder, the official said.

"He's not there yet," said Gingrich, assessing Bush's willingness to personally launch an attack on Democrats.

When Bush first called the talks in May with "no preconditions," many Republicans angrily protested that he was giving up the tax issue and getting nothing in return. Their outcry prompted White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu to try to reassure conservatives that Bush meant to do nothing of the sort.

That established a pattern of confusion inside the administration, as the president simultaneously sought to bargain seriously with the Democrats while allowing his advisers to explain away his actions to increasingly nervous Republicans in Congress as "nothing new."

This turmoil among Republicans bolstered Democratic hard-liners, led by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Maine), Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (Tenn.) and Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. (Ga.), who argued from the beginning that time was on their side.

According to participants, the hard-liners argued that the size of the deficit, the swelling cost of the savings and loan cleanup and the threat of across-the-board spending cuts in the fall gave Democrats the upper hand. The longer they held out, these Democrats argued, the more likely they were to strike a deal on favorable terms.

In the face of Democratic recalcitrance, some Republicans now argue, the White House lacked a clear political strategy for handling the talks. Whatever strategy the administration had, these Republicans argue, was geared more to the intricacies of legislative politics, not electoral politics.

"By the very nature of the problem, the president is forced out of his turf onto Congress's turf," Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) said.

At several key points in the negotiations, administration actions have saved Democrats from embarrassments in their own camp. In late June, Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman offered a plan that Democrats immediately assailed as inadequate. Deeply divided Democrats argued over whether they should put their own plan forward, with House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) urging them to do so.

But before the split became serious, Bush -- urged on by Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady -- called top congressional Democrats to the White House for a breakfast meeting. The upshot was the now-famous presidential statement saying that a budget deal would have to include not only spending and entitlement cuts but also "increased tax revenues."

Bush's move bolstered the militants among the Democrats, and the subsequent reaction among Republicans caused additional problems for the White House. House Republicans declared their opposition to new taxes, and Democrats argued that until it was clear Bush could deliver his own troops, they were not prepared to put their own necks on the line politically.

Republican missteps played into Democratic hands again last week, after Bush and his advisers had agreed with Mitchell, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to try to exchange plans.

Gephardt and Panetta outlined a proposal to Democratic negotiators at a closed session last Wednesday, but Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said it did not contain enough money for discretionary domestic programs. When it was clear the Democrats were far from agreement, Gephardt adjourned the meeting, participants said.

About the same time, Darman and Brady were meeting with congressional Republicans to outline their plan. With some reservations, the Republicans endorsed the administration proposal as an opening bid for the negotiations. But the next morning, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) spilled details of the plan, including taxes on alcohol and limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes, to a group of reporters.

The administration plan was never formally presented in the negotiations, but that did not prevent both Republicans and Democrats from criticizing the White House for it.

As it became clear that the Democrats were not ready to offer their own plan, White House officials grew angrier. This kicked off discussions about how and when to strike back, with some officials suggesting that Bush go public in his attack. But once again, the president appeared to opt for a strategy designed not to blow up the negotiations.

Increasingly restive Republicans began to push the president to take the offensive, beginning Monday with a meeting at the White House, after which congressional leaders attacked the Democrats for bargaining in bad faith.

Emerging from the session yesterday, Gingrich and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) both described Bush as frustrated and prepared to fight back. "I think he {Bush} was saying this morning that if they don't turn in a plan by Friday, if they don't start meeting their responsibilities, that beginning in August, he's going to communicate to the country who is responsible . . . ," Gingrich said.

When news reports suggested Bush had set a Friday deadline of the recess for a Democratic plan, the White House called reporters to say that was incorrect. Deputy press secretary Alixe Glen said after the session, "You can assume that when the GOP lawmakers go home {in two days} they won't be shy about the foot-dragging we've seen by the Democrats about finding a credible solution to the budget deficit."

But White House deputy press secretary Roman Popadiuk, giving another version of the meeting, emphasized Bush had not put any deadlines on when he would take the case to the public and stressed that if the Democrats do not produce a plan now, the White House will wait longer.

Later, another White House official called reporters to explain that Gingrich's version of events implied a too tough Bush, while Popadiuk's suggested a too soft approach. "About in the middle is right," the official said.

Democrats, watching the scene from the Capitol, showed no inclination to produce the elusive budget proposal in time for it to be dissected during the recess. Democrats agreed to help the president, Panetta said, "but we did not pledge that every time the Republicans slit their wrists, we'll slit ours."

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.