With limited public appetite for their number one priority, congressional Republican leaders yesterday conceded defeat in their quest for a big tax cut this year and shifted to a more modest strategy aimed at keeping spending down and taking credit for reducing the national debt.

Faced with a certain veto of their $792 billion tax cut plan, GOP leaders indicated they have little interest in trying to negotiate a compromise package with President Clinton in which they would trade an increase in spending for Medicare and other domestic programs for a smaller tax cut.

Instead they said they will focus largely on passing routine spending bills and locking in future budget surpluses to protect Social Security and begin paying down the $5.6 trillion accumulated national debt.

This change in strategy reflects a calculation by Republicans that it would be politically risky to engage Clinton in complicated eleventh-hour negotiations, as they have in the past with often disastrous results. Instead, Republicans have concluded they will be better off getting out of town as soon as possible and preparing for next year's election.

It also reflects their lack of success in persuading the public to support a tax cut many rank as low on their list of priorities. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Americans want Congress to use any budget surplus to increase spending on education and health care programs before they cut taxes or reduce the national debt.

"We don't feel we need a tax cut to survive," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Our challenge to the president is, 'If you don't use the surplus for tax cuts, don't use it for more spending.' "

The White House and congressional Democrats insist there is still time for an agreement this year on a smaller tax package in the range of $250 billion to $300 billion targeted to the middle class.

Clinton told reporters yesterday that "I'm willing to work" with the Republicans to provide a modest tax cut this year that will not undermine efforts to buttress Social Security or reduce the debt. "There is always some flexibility in this budget," he said.

But House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and other House leaders yesterday echoed the assertion of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that a veto of the GOP tax bill would kill taxes as an issue this year.

"We'd love to see [Clinton] sign the bill, but if he's not going to sign it . . . we're not prepared to let the president give us sort of a half-baked tax bill in exchange for an increase in spending," Armey said.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) dismissed talk of a last-minute deal on taxes and spending as a "lose-lose situation" for Republicans, adding that the GOP tax bill passed by Congress last month "is our one chance" for major tax relief this year.

Yet even the minimalist approach will be difficult. Only two of the 13 annual spending bills have cleared Congress and been signed by the president, with the largest and most contentious yet to be completed.

Because Congress is operating under budget constraints imposed by the 1997 balanced budget deal, there isn't enough money available to finance government programs and personnel to the satisfaction of a majority of House and Senate members and Clinton without dipping into surpluses in the Social Security program--which Republicans and Democrats alike have promised to keep off limits.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), among others, has warned that mounting spending demands--including billions of dollars of supplemental spending that the administration will soon request--would wipe out the $14 billion non-Social Security surplus projected for 2000 and eat into the Social Security funds to the tune of $11 billion or more.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) yesterday insisted that Congress would find a way to pass all the spending bills without dipping into Social Security, although it was far from clear where the Republicans would find the additional funding or the necessary offsetting cuts in other programs.

Already, GOP leaders have had to employ a number of gimmicks to make some of the smaller spending bills palatable to members of Congress. Now they have to find a way to pass the larger, much tougher bills, including the labor-health-education and commerce-justice-state appropriations bills.

Yesterday the House passed a $90 billion veterans-housing spending bill, 235 to 187, over vigorous complaints from the administration and Democrats about deep cuts in housing programs and NASA. The bill consisted of a series of tough trade-offs, with the Republicans agreeing to boost spending for veterans medical care by $1.7 billion and fully funding all expiring contracts for the Section 8 housing program, while cutting back in on other housing programs and space programs.

Locally, area members of Congress said the bill would pare $267 million from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, potentially forcing the elimination of 1,500 jobs this year and an additional 1,000 jobs in 2004.

Virginia lawmakers also are fighting the cuts, because NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin has said up to three of 10 NASA space centers could be forced to close, including Langley Space Research Center in Hampton.

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Juliet Eilperin and polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.