The partisan sniping over how to protect patients in managed-care plans took an unexpected turn yesterday as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) settled on a parliamentary strategy aimed at thwarting Democrats' plans for how to debate the issue when it comes to the Senate floor next week.

In an unusual move, Lott decided to use far-reaching legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as the basis for debate instead of the version of patients' protections the GOP drafted.

Counterintuitive as it is, the strategy is intended to try to prevent Democrats from forcing votes on a series of amendments on issues that are unlikely to pass but nevertheless are popular with voters -- issues such as whether patients should have the right to sue their HMO and whether doctors, not health plans, should have the final say over which treatment patients need.

"We are now the other side, and we have a great many changes we want to make because we, quite frankly, don't like the Kennedy bill," said Lott's spokesman, John Czwartacki.

But a Democratic Senate aide said last night the maneuver was unlikely to work and that party leaders had discovered several parliamentary tricks of their own to make sure they can bring the amendments they want to a vote.

"This kind of maneuver demonstrates the bankruptcy of the Republican position on these issues," Kennedy said. "Parliamentary tactics won't allow senators to duck these issues any longer."

Lott disclosed his strategy just a week after Senate Republican and Democratic leaders agreed, at last, on how to bring to the floor the contentious issue of whether the federal government should place tighter reins on the managed-care plans that are now the main source of American's health care. The agreement calls for four days of debate to start on Monday and allows Democrats to bring up most of 20 amendments that they had insisted were needed to revise the Republican approach.

Democrats forced that agreement by holding up all action in the Senate for a week. Last year, the Senate never took up similar patient-protection bills because the two parties could not reach consensus on how to handle a floor debate.