WASHINGTON - Congressional Republicans intend to pass marriage penalty tax relief on a politically inspired schedule that requires President Clinton to sign or veto the measure on the eve of the GOP National Convention.
Several GOP aides said Monday they hope a veto would give them an issue for the campaign to come, while a presidential signature would blunt charges of a ''Do-Nothing'' Congress.
For their part, Democrats expressed confidence that Clinton would veto the GOP's stand-alone tax cut bill for married couples, who often are obliged to pay more in taxes than if they were single. Instead, the Democrats are expected to support a smaller measure targeted more directly to low- and middle-income working couples.
Aides said Democrats will couple that proposal with suggestions that the leftover funds be used on politically popular issues such as a prescription drug benefit under Medicare or tax breaks for long-term care insurance.
''What the Republicans are doing is instead of working with Democrats on a compromise that could ... actually get signed, they are pushing through an unworkable bill that the president will veto...,'' said Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Clinton addressed the issue during the day before the nation's governors in comments that made no mention of a veto. Instead, he noted, ''I asked Congress to bargain with me,'' offering to sign their marriage penalty tax cut if they would approve a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
With Congress just back from a weeklong break, the struggle over tax relief for married couples is one of several issues likely to occupy lawmakers' time in the three-week prelude to the GOP convention, which opens July 31 in Philadelphia.
Republicans are also laboring over spending bills needed to fund the government for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The Senate began debate during the day on a bill to finance the Interior Department and other agencies, and the House turned to a measure for the Agriculture Department.
In addition, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has said action is likely on House-passed legislation to grant normal trade relations with China.
Republicans also are hoping to advance a second major tax cut to the White House. This one would phase out the estate tax. Democrats broke ranks over that measure when it cleared the House last month, and passage in the Senate appears likely. Clinton has pledged a veto, however.
The stage for the marriage penalty tax cut drama was set last spring, when Republican leaders made room in their budget for two tax cuts to move through Congress under rules that sharply restrict debate time and limit amendments. One, to be acted on in the fall, is reserved for year-end bargaining with the White House.
The other consists of the marriage penalty measure, and will be served up to the Democrats on a take-it-or-leave basis, Republicans said.
Sparring on the issue began as soon as lawmakers returned to the Capitol.
Taking aim at the GOP marriage penalty and estate tax cut bills, Daschle said Republicans were ready for a ''trillion dollar week'' while ignoring Democratic priorities such as a patients bill of rights, an increase in the minimum wage, Medicare prescription drugs and gun control.
But Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., a prominent advocate of reducing the marriage penalty, noted that the House had passed a bill last spring with the unanimous backing of Republicans and the support of four dozen Democrats. Only Democratic stalling in the Senate, he said, kept the bill from passing.
''Bill Clinton and Al Gore have paid lip service to eliminating the marriage penalty and they've offered token relief that would help very few,'' he said.
Asked about the political implications, he added, ''Clearly if a bipartisan vote places this on the president's desk, it's going to be hard for him to justify why he should veto it.''
The House is expected to approve the measure Wednesday, and GOP leaders hope for Senate action by week's end. One timetable calls for the two versions of the bill to be reconciled quickly and the final compromise sent to the White House early next week. Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, said the goal was to get the bill to Clinton's desk by ''Monday night so the 10 day window ends before convention starts.''
The Constitution allows a president 10 days to sign or veto a bill - Sundays excluded - starting from its arrival at the White House.
A second, slightly slower timetable, calls for sending the measure to the White House a few days later. That would allow Republicans to talk about Clinton's choice during their convention.