President Clinton is using his 11th-hour budget battle with Congress to try to broaden the federal "hate crimes" law, primarily by adding homosexuals to its category of protected groups.

The proposal, a goal of many gay rights groups, would authorize federal prosecution of persons accused of violent crimes motivated by the victim's sexual orientation, gender or disability. Currently, only a victim's race or religion can trigger a federal intervention. The proposed legislation would also broaden the circumstances under which federal prosecutors could get involved in cases classified as hate crimes, typically when local prosecutors either invite them in or, conversely, decline to prosecute an alleged crime themselves.

The legislation appeared to have momentum last summer, following a spate of well-publicized hate crimes that included the dragging death of a black man in Texas and the beating death of gay man in Wyoming. But Republican House budget leaders recently persuaded their Senate counterparts to drop it from the appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments. Several civil rights organizations have scheduled a Capitol Hill news conference today in hopes of saving the measure.

Clinton cited the hate crimes proposal yesterday as one of his reasons for vetoing the spending bill. "This bill does not contain a needed hate crimes provision that was included in the Senate version," Clinton's veto message said. The United States must "maintain a system that vigorously protects and rigorously respects the civil rights of individuals, the dignity of every citizen. . . . "

The White House, however, has many other differences with Congress as the two sides try to complete the federal government's fiscal 2000 spending plan. Advocates worry that the hate crimes proposal is not the administration's top priority, and thus it might be compromised away during final negotiations.

In yesterday's veto message, Clinton mentioned the hate crimes measure only after citing his demand for 50,000 new police officers, payment of delinquent United Nations dues and increased spending for international peacekeeping efforts. He also is pressing Congress to hire 100,000 new schoolteachers, buy more parkland and strengthen several environmental regulations.

The hate crimes proposal "is obviously caught up in the whole budget impasse," said a civil rights advocate familiar with the negotiations. As the only nonspending issue among the major items still being debated, the advocate said, it could be "doomed for this session" if the White House and congressional leaders decide the appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments should involve "only fiscal matters."

Publicly, gay rights advocates sound more optimistic.

"The president has made this one of his top priorities," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director for Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians. "We fully expect to see President Clinton use all the resources at his disposal to make this a law." She cited recent FBI reports that hate crimes based on sexual orientation increased 12.5 percent from 1997 to 1998, even as overall violent crime was falling.

Eddie Correia, White House special counsel for civil rights, said yesterday, "It's something the administration cares a lot about, as evidenced by the president talking about it over and over."

Advocates say the power of federal prosecutors is needed in cases where local authorities lack the clout--or the will--to vigorously pursue violent crimes in which the victim's race, religion or sexual orientation apparently triggered the perpetrator's actions. "Even in states that have broad hate crimes statutes, the higher penalties available under the federal statute, the complexity of the investigation, the procedural advantages of a federal prosecution, or the failure of a state prosecution may mean that a federal prosecution is warranted," says a White House briefing paper.

The proposed legislation would strengthen the law regarding crimes based on race and religion. Currently, federal prosecutors generally are limited to cases "where the victim is targeted because he is engaging in certain specified federally protected activities, such as serving on a jury, traveling on an interstate highway or attending a public school," the briefing paper says. The Clinton proposal would drop those restrictions.

Opposing the measure are conservative groups that are against special recognition for gays and lesbians. They say current laws are sufficient. Andrea Sheldon Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, said the infamous Texas and Wyoming hate crimes prompted vigorous prosecutions by local, not federal, authorities. "The proponents of this legislation have never proven the need for it," she said.