Faced with division within his own cabinet and parliamentary caucus, Prime Minister Jean Chretien today signaled that he would have to delay introducing legislation to make it more difficult for Quebec voters to break up the country and leave Canada.

Chretien had hoped to put forward legislation this week that would require 60 percent of Quebec voters to agree to secession in a referendum before Ottawa would agree to negotiate the terms of the province's separation. But members of Chretien's cabinet, as well as nearly every member of his Liberal Party from Quebec, reportedly told the prime minister they could not support such a measure now.

In recent days, several cabinet members and backbenchers have broken the usual code of silence on party deliberations, telling reporters that such a move would be needlessly provocative.

Their fear is that by rekindling the issue, Chretien would be bringing the cause of the separatists' back into political focus just when their support is at its lowest point in nearly a generation.

Emerging from a morning cabinet meeting in Ottawa, Chretien tried to put the best face on things by declaring that the government will make clear its position, either by legislation or a ministerial declaration, before next spring.

But in an unusual admission, the prime minister acknowledged that his government was not ready to move now, despite months of behind-the-scenes work by his staff and government lawyers.

"It will be done--next week, next month . . . next April, I don't know," said Chretien. "But it has to be done."

In Quebec, Premier Lucien Bouchard immediately accused Chretien of trying to "asphyxiate" the separatist movement.

He vowed that if Ottawa failed to recognize a simple majority vote for secession, its intransigence would free the French-speaking province to unilaterally declare its independence and seek official international recognition.

Bouchard also ridiculed Chretien's assertion that just over 50 percent voting to secede was not enough.

"How are they going to come up with another number?" Bouchard asked. "Will they pull it out of the hat? Will it be 57 percent? Sixty? Why not 63.5?

"Anything other than 50 percent-plus is as arbitrary and undemocratic," he said.