The National Rifle Association yesterday mounted a campaign to stall Senate action on omnibus anti-crime legislation, charging that a provision calling for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases amounts to "nothing less than an unmitigated attack on the rights of law-abiding gun owners."

Faced with threats of a filibuster by NRA supporters in the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) scheduled a cloture vote today in an attempt to end delaying tactics and force the bill to a final vote later this week.

Meanwhile, gun-control foes thwarted a move by Biden to expedite passage of the bill, now in its third week of debate, by limiting amendments and precluding further action on such controversial issues as death-row appeals, use of tainted evidence in court and deportation of aliens suspected of terrorism.

Although the proposed waiting period was approved late last month by a vote of 67 to 32, it was unclear late yesterday whether Senate leaders could muster the 60 votes necessary to limit debate on the bill by invoking cloture.

A key question was whether cloture might be defeated by a combination of foes of the death penalty, which the legislation would reimpose for more than 50 federal crimes under the legislation; gun-control opponents, and other senators who want more time for consideration of their crime proposals.

Ending its relatively low-profile in debate over the measure, the NRA yesterday circulated a letter denouncing the bill in its entirety and urging senators to oppose cloture on it.

The bill is "not a crime bill, it is a gun-control bill," said Patrick J. Raffaniello, director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, in his letter to senators.

"The continued inclusion of the unwarranted federal waiting period, the extension of criminal background checks for all firearms including long guns and the ban and registration of semiautomatic firearms place this bill in diametric opposition to the protections guaranteed by the Second Amendment" guaranteeing a right to bear arms, he said.

Despite what he called "several positive anti-crime elements" and deletion of "several of the more onerous anti-gun sections," the remaining gun provisions mean the bill "will stand as a watershed for anti-gun forces," Raffaniello added.

Gail Hoffman, lobbyist for Handgun Control Inc., called the NRA's campaign against the bill "desperation tactics . . . an admission by them that they have lost big-time" on the waiting period issue.

As the Senate slogged through some of the nearly 100 proposed amendments to the crime bill, it voted 55 to 39 to encourage states to provide literacy programs for prisoners, rejecting an alternative that would have required states to conduct prisoner literacy programs.

"If the federal government wants to establish these programs and pay for them, fine. But don't make states pay for it that can't afford it," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), sponsor of the successful proposal.

The Senate also rejected, 55 to 43, a Thurmond proposal to delete from the bill a proposal to require states to establish a police officers' bill of rights providing standards for internal investigations. Thurmond argued that the issue should be left to the states.