Battered by weeks of Democratic attacks, President Bush and his top aides yesterday seized on a provision in the House budget package to try to steer the fiscal conversation back to GOP territory, where Democrats are said to be "addicted to tax increases" and "ripping off the working men and women of America."

The provision would delay for one year the inflation-rate adjustment of income tax rate brackets and the personal exemption. Without adjustments in rate brackets, most taxpayers would pay higher taxes simply because of inflation.

A senior administration official chortled yesterday that the Democrats, by approving the tax indexing delay, "just threw us a lifeline. . . . Watch us grab." A GOP official said, "They really have given us a clear shot." A White House official said, "We just found our voice."

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, on morning television programs and in an interview, laid out the theme Bush had repeated during a campaign trip Tuesday. The Democratic budget plan, he said, "rips off Middle America, working men and women, with an income tax increase for them."

What Bush warned America about, Sununu said, "is exactly what's happening. Once the Democrats get their hands on tax rates, they can't help themselves, they're addicted. They just raise the rates on the working people of this country."

Democrats protested that the Bush administration was distorting the effect of the plan by singling out one component of a package that overall places more of the tax burden on wealthier Americans. Democrats inserted the delay in tax rate indexation so that they would not have to raise gasoline taxes, which they said would have hurt poor and middle-income earners even more.

But the administration was counting on that nuance being lost amid a blizzard of attacks.

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, armed with computer printouts of how the indexing provision effectively raises income taxes on various income classes, told reporters, "It's a tax increase bill. Hidden taxes are back. It brings back the bracket creep of the bad old days."

According to Fitzwater, a married couple with two children and a taxable income of $34,000 would pay income taxes in 1991 of $5,100, but under the "Democratic tax increase," they would pay $313, or 6 percent, more.

Democrats replied that the example neglects to take other taxes into account. "The examples may be accurate, but the impression it creates is misleading," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-profit organization that focuses on low- and moderate-income Americans.

Greenstein said "the middle class would end up with much more disposable income under the House Democratic plan." He said total tax increases for the middle class would be three times as big under the failed budget-summit agreement or the Senate Finance plan as under the House Democratic plan.

But at the Republican National Committee, the fax machines churned out a statement by spokesman Charles Black paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, who raised anti-tax rhetoric to an art form. "There they go again," Black said of the Democrats, accusing them of passing "a tax increase that does everything every other Democrat tax plan in recent memory does -- sneaks a tax increase on the middle class."

Like Fitzwater, Sununu went out of his way yesterday to insist that the media focus on the indexing provision instead of Bush's wavering tax positions or comparisons of the Bush-backed budget-summit package with the House Democrats' plan. Interviewed on NBC's "Today" by Bryant Gumbel, Sununu sharply criticized Gumbel's description of the House plan as one that raises tax rates for the rich, which it does. "You ought not to become an apologist for the Democratic Party by rationalizing that the rise in the income tax that the people have to pay {by dropping indexing} is not a rise in income tax," he said, complaining that the news media "leave that out every time you describe the tax plan."

Sununu acknowledged that the White House was seizing on the one provision even though the package the administration backs would increase the tax burden of middle-income Americans just as much, if not more. Bush, he said, did not propose those other revenue increases; he was forced to accept them. "Those were the tax broccoli the president was forced to eat by the Democrats to get an agreement to help the economy," he said.

It was House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) who devised the swap that dropped higher federal gasoline taxes, which had been part of the budget-summit agreement, and inserted the one-year delay of indexing income-tax brackets and personal exemptions, according to Democrats on the panel.

The higher gasoline levy was strongly opposed by rural and suburban lawmakers on the committee, whose constituents rely heavily on their automobiles. In two days of drafting, Democrats on the Ways and Means panel scaled back the gas tax hike to only three cents and included a one-year delay in indexing income tax rate brackets only, lawmakers said.

Later, Rostenkowski announced that the gas tax was gone altogether and that indexing the personal exemption would be delayed by one year as well.

"If we didn't do that," said one Ways and Means Democrat, "the Republicans would have found something else to attack us on, but we made it easy for them."

Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.