House Democratic leaders and the Bush administration engaged in a furious battle for votes last night as the House debated civil rights legislation that would overturn a series of recent Supreme Court decisions undercutting protections against job discrimination.

Seeking to counter an all-out White House effort to amend the bill so that President Bush will not be put in the position of vetoing a major civil rights measure, House Democrats worked feverishly throughout the day to persuade a bloc of mostly conservative and southern Democrats not to support an alternative backed by the administration. The House is scheduled to vote on the substitute and on final passage of the bill today.

The legislation, nearly identical to a bill already approved after a bitter partisan battle by the Senate, would alter or reverse six key court decisions that the civil rights community contends have undermined longstanding protections against job discrimination. It would also expand the monetary damages that some victims of job discrimination can win in court.

Arguing that the bill would encourage employers to set racial quotas to avert expensive court challenges and would "produce a windfall for lawyers," the White House pushed hard for passage of a substitute measure sponsored by House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).

A key Democratic supporter of the substitute, Small Business Committee Chairman John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), yesterday came under extraordinary pressure from within his party to withdraw his backing. LaFalce's support for the substitute, combined with the lobbying weight of business interests, encouraged a group of southern Democrats to back the Michel alternative.

But LaFalce, in a rambling, highly personal floor speech last night in which he defended his liberalism, indicated he would not switch his position and said House passage of the Democratic bill would result in no civil rights bill being enacted because Bush would veto it.

Democratic leaders and civil rights organization activists fought furiously throughout yesterday to persuade wavering Democrats to support their bill. By last night, they appeared confident of victory, in part because they agreed to back amendments capping punitive damages allowed by the bill at $150,000 and stating that nothing in the bill "shall be construed" as requiring employment quotas.

Republican leaders accused their Democratic counterparts of using strong-arm tactics to change votes, including threats to punish lawmakers in the 1992 congressional re-districting and to dispatch black lawmakers to campaign against southern Democrats from districts with sizeable minority populations. Those charges could not be independently verified.

"They decided . . . this is worth any price," said GOP whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "This is standard politics for the {Democratic} machine."

The intensive lobbying efforts on both sides underscored the political stakes involved in the battle over the civil rights measure. Bush has said he "desperately" wants to sign a civil rights measure, but cannot endorse legislation that the White House believes is a quota bill.

Democratic leaders, in turn, went to extraordinary lengths to deny Bush a victory and to keep him in the politically uncomfortable position of threatening to veto a civil rights bill. The Republican alternative, they argued to their wavering colleagues, would do nothing but codify last year's Supreme Court decisions, which made it harder for workers to challenge employment practices that disproportionately affect minority groups.

A central element in the Democratic bill would overturn a decision in Wards Cove v. Atonio that put on workers the burden of proving an employment practice has a disparate impact on women and minorities. The legislation would return to employers the burden of proving that an employment practice is a business necessity and would narrow the definition of what is a necessary business practice.

In addition, the measure would give all victims of intentional bias the right to sue for compensatory, and in some extreme cases, punitive monetary damages. Only victims of racial discrimination can now win those expansive remedies, while others are limited to back pay and attorneys' fees.