The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly against statehood for the District yesterday, declining to give D.C. residents full representation in Congress amid widespread doubts that statehood is workable or constitutional.

Even fervent advocates of statehood had predicted that House members would reject plans for the first completely independent local government in the District since its founding. All but one of the House's Republicans joined with 40 percent of its Democrats to defeat the measure, 277 to 153.

Although they lost resoundingly, most statehood supporters portrayed the vote as a political victory. The vote and a lengthy House debate on statehood Saturday marked the first time in 15 years that Congress has considered any major change in the District's governmental structure. Never in history had either the House or the Senate debated statehood for the District.

An emotional visitors gallery packed with statehood supporters broke into prolonged applause when the House's voting machines showed that statehood had received 150 votes, a number that statehood leaders later characterized as respectable in the face of intense opposition.

"I'm ready to declare victory right now," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who sponsored the statehood bill. "This vote has surpassed my greatest expectations."

But opponents said the magnitude of the loss spoke for itself. Noting the large block of Democrats who refused to go along with their party's leadership in support of statehood, foes predicted that the issue may not be considered again in Congress for years.

Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), the senior Republican on the House D.C. Committee, said: "It was an overwhelming defeat. . . . I would doubt the leadership will let this come back to the floor unless {proponents} can show substantially more support than they have today."

At least one of statehood's most prominent advocates was dissatisfied with yesterday's outcome. Jesse L. Jackson, who was elected by the District to lobby Congress on the issue, lashed out at House Democratic leaders and President Clinton immediately after the vote, saying they had not done enough to push statehood.

"This is a lost opportunity for Democrats and democracy," Jackson said. "If the White House had pushed this, we would have won. . . . The House leadership was talking this down, saying it was a symbolic vote, not a substantive one. No deals were cut here."

But lawmakers on both sides of the statehood issue said they believed that no amount of political arm-twisting could have reversed the outcome of yesterday's vote. Ultimately, they said, the statehood debate became a conflict of two basic issues: the rights of District residents and the District's unique place in history and in the Constitution.

Although many lawmakers expressed concern that the District does not have any senators or a full House member, most were not convinced that statehood is the appropriate remedy. Leading statehood foes said that constitutional concerns were the overriding reason for their opposition.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a senior committee chairman, was one of the highest-ranking Democrats to speak out against statehood. He acknowledged that District residents do not have the same representation in Congress as residents of the states, but he said Congress has a duty to retain its jurisdiction over the District to protect federal interests.

"I have supported every single civil rights measure that has passed this Congress since 1955," Dingell said. "But we have to look at the facts before us. . . . No citizen of Washington is chained to the pillars of the U.S. Capitol. They can leave any time they want."

Statehood proponents argued in vain that the District's situation is so undemocratic as to outweigh all other issues. Norton said that District residents "are the only federal-tax-paying Americans without full representation in this body," and she criticized what she called the "Chicken Little arguments" of statehood opponents. "The sky will not fall if the District becomes a state," Norton said.

One opponent savagely attacked the performance of the District government, a subject that frequently arises in congressional debates on the D.C. budget. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said the District's criminal justice system reflects "a hug-a-thug attitude on violent crime" and called the city "a liberal bastion of corruption and crime."

DeLay said he not only opposed statehood, but also would favor abolishing the District's local government and imposing direct congressional rule. The remarks so irked Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), chairman of the D.C. Committee, that Stark later quipped, "The District of Columbia might challenge the literacy of the state of Texas any day."

Yesterday's vote climaxes a three-year effort by Norton and other statehood supporters to bring the issue to the floor of the House. Despite the loss, several lawmakers said Norton's ability to overcome the skepticism of senior lawmakers and obtain a spot on the House's crowded agenda reflects considerable legislative skill.

The strategy did not make Norton universally popular with her colleagues. Some Democrats who considered statehood a sensitive political issue wanted to avoid the vote. And at a time when Congress is struggling with a long docket of major issues, others considered the statehood vote a waste of valuable time.

But even opponents praised Norton yesterday. Norton "did a good job," Bliley said. "She just got beat."

All but one House member from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs voted against statehood yesterday, in large part because statehood would enable the District to levy a commuter tax on suburban residents who work in the city. The sole exception was Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D), from Prince George's County.

The only Republican in the House to vote for statehood was Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, from Maryland's Eastern Shore.