Congressional Democrats plan this week to launch a big push to raise the minimum wage, forcing Republican leaders to come up with alternatives to avoid political damage or even defeat on the sensitive issue of helping low-income Americans.

"There's an interest on both sides, Democrat and Republican, to get this done before we adjourn" for the year, said Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), a GOP moderate who has been working with Democrats to produce a bipartisan majority to pass the legislation.

The first test is likely to come Tuesday when Senate Democrats will try to use a pending bankruptcy bill to force votes on legislation backed by President Clinton and most Democratic lawmakers to raise the hourly federal wage floor by $1 to $6.15 over the next two years.

Democrats appear to have the votes needed to block a move by GOP leaders to keep the bankruptcy bill from being expanded to include a minimum wage increase, gun controls or other proposals opposed by most Republicans. This could open the way for consideration of the wage initiative--or another delay if GOP leaders decide to shelve the bankruptcy measure to avoid votes on unrelated issues.

If the Democrats' proposal comes to a vote in the Senate, they are "on the cusp" of picking up enough Republicans to win a majority for passage, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's chief champion, said in an interview Friday.

In the House, moderate Republicans plan to appeal directly to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) this week to schedule a vote on the legislation. And Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) will seek signatures on a "discharge petition" under which a majority of House members could force votes even if the leadership continues to balk.

While Hastert is eager to dispose of the issue during a non-election year, he is far from enthusiastic at the prospect of enacting one of the Democrats' top priorities. "I assume it's probably going to come up," Hastert said last week. But "for most folks, the tax cut probably means more than a minimum wage increase," he added.

To some extent, this year's struggle resembles the successful effort to pass the last minimum wage increase in 1996, when Kennedy tied the Senate in knots until Republicans agreed to consider the measure and Republican moderates helped force a vote in the House. That bill increased the wage floor by 90 cents to $5.15 an hour by September 1997 and gave small businesses a variety of tax breaks to help pay the cost of the higher wages.

The fate of the measure this year appears to hinge on a half-dozen moderate Republicans in the Senate and a centrist bloc of "Blue Dog" conservative Democrats and GOP moderates in the House, who have more than enough votes to tip the outcome either way.

The politics of the wage issue present problems for Republicans, however. Lower-income workers have gotten less of a financial boost from the nation's booming economy than wealthier Americans, according to many studies, and Democrats have pounced on the tax cut bill to portray the GOP as the party of the rich. Republicans could also find it difficult to square opposition to wage increases for low-income workers with the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush, their presidential front-runner.

In addition, Democrats are poised to point to recent passage of a spending bill raising congressional salaries by $4,600 to $141,300 a year to shame Republicans into supporting the measure. "It would be the height of hypocrisy, stunning hypocrisy, to oppose this . . . after voting a pay increase for themselves," Kennedy said.

Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow for governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, said it will be difficult for GOP leaders to ignore the issue. "They can't beat it back indefinitely, and every effort to keep it from emerging will cost them politically," he said. "They're probably better off doing it as quickly and quietly as possible."

As a result of pressure from their own ranks as much as heat from the Democrats, House Republicans are considering a wage increase spread over three or four years, rather than the two years favored by Democrats, and they want tax breaks for small businesses.

In the Senate, John Czwartacki, spokesman for Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said Republicans have an "outline" of a proposal that may or may not include a minimum wage increase but will, in some fashion, "improve the lot of workers earning the minimum wage." He declined to spell out details but said it will include tax breaks aimed at expanding employment for lower-income workers.

Democrats in both houses are willing to go along with tax breaks for small businesses, though, according to Kennedy, they would draw the line at resurrection of more general tax breaks that were included in the larger tax cut bill that Clinton plans to veto.

Bonior's discharge petition would allow for small-business tax breaks to be attached to the minimum-wage bill. In an interview Wednesday, he listed possible business incentives ranging from an increase in the business meal deduction to extension of a tax credit for employers providing entry-level jobs.

"My preference is we just do the wage increase," Bonior said. "But I understand that in order to get this done, we have to provide [tax] breaks on the side."

CAPTION: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is bill's chief champion in Senate.

CAPTION: Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) sees need for tax breaks to be included.