Senate Democrats yesterday blocked a Republican effort to cut nearly $300 million in transit funds for New York and California in a politically charged struggle that opened a new front in the long war over money for mass transit and who gets it.

The vote was 49 to 49, with Republicans suffering four defections from their own ranks and falling 11 votes short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster by angry New York and California Democrats.

Shortly after the vote, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on public works and sponsor of the proposal, decided to drop the provision, according to his staff. This put the otherwise relatively noncontroversial $49 billion highway and transit funding bill on track for passage by the Senate.

But the fact that the fight occurred at all said a lot about transportation politics in Washington. Over the past two decades, transit champions have scored big gains in assuring that funds once reserved solely for roads can be used for subways, buses and other forms of mass transit. The result has been a greater hunger from more states for a share of the transit money.

The existing formula for dispensing about $5 billion in annual transit funding, approved last year as part of a five-year transportation authorization bill, is heavily weighted toward states with the most riders. Under this formula, New York and California, with nearly half the nation's transit riders, get about 30 percent of the funding.

Shelby's proposal would have limited any one state to 12.5 percent of total transit funding, cutting New York's share by $160.2 million, or 33 percent, and California's by $117.6 million, or 13 percent, according to senators from the two states. No other state's funding would have been cut. The money would have been distributed equally among the other 48 states.

"This was a dagger pointed at our two states," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "It was also a hit at four Democratic senators," complained Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The two states' senators argued that they actually get less per rider than other states and that their transit outlays come at the expense of their road funding. While some Democrats from smaller states were under back-home pressure to support Shelby's proposal, none did--largely because of the political overtones of the fight and concerns over tinkering with the existing distribution formula, aides said. The four Republicans who joined them serve on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which helped write the existing formula. Among them was Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who joined the Washington area's three Democrats in voting against the Shelby provision.

During committee deliberations, Shelby argued that New York and California were getting "more than their fair share" of transit funding and that it should be spread more equitably among other states.

While many states don't have big subway systems, transit funding is increasingly used throughout the country for services such as transporting the elderly to medical services, an aide added. Besides, the aide said, a distribution system based on ridership ignores the fact that "you can't ride a system that doesn't exist, and, unless you get some help, you can't build a system."

In a statement after the vote, Shelby suggested there may be a political price to pay for those who decided that "transit in the two largest transit states is more important than transit in their own home states."

The House did not include a change in the transit distribution formula in its version of the transportation bill. The White House had threatened a veto by President Clinton if the Shelby provision were included in the final bill.