President Bush has dug himself into a hole in his budget battle with Congress, shattering an image of decisiveness brought to high polish by his showdown with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Bush made scant progress Thursday in clearing up the confusion resulting from his mixed signals on higher income tax for the rich."My mind's been made up for a long time; it just needs a little clarification," he told reporters at the White House.

Then, trying to end an erratic three-day performance, he said he favored a new top tax rate of 31 percent, up from 28 percent, and a cut in the capital gains rate to 15 percent from 28 percent.

But he predicted there was no chance the Democrats, who favor taxing the richest at 33 percent, would accept his terms and told House Republicans it would be a "waste of time" to try.

"I do not believe such a compromise is now possible," Bush said. "Indeed, I'm quite concerned that pursuing it in the current context may not only fail, it may legitimize something further to the left that we cannot accept."

The White House zigzag drew fresh criticism from Democrats. "Our president now has taken more positions on taxes than Nadia Comaneci," said Rep. Lawrence Smith of Florida, referring to the former Romanian Olympic gold medal gymnast.

House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, a California Democrat, said, "Frankly, at this point in the game, I don't know what, where their position is."

The appearance of presidential flip-flopping clouded congressional efforts to complete a detailed proposal on which government programs to cut and which taxes to raise.

Under a stopgap spending bill Bush signed Tuesday, Congress has until next Friday to send him an acceptable package to reduce the federal deficit by $500 billion over five years.

The government was closed over the three-day holiday weekend because of the budget stalemate and faces another shutdown in a week unless a deal is struck to replace a White House-approved package killed in the House last week.

Bush, who campaigned in 1988 on a pledge never to raise taxes, said for the first time Tuesday he was willing to raise income taxes on the wealthy if a final budget deal with Congress included his long-sought cut in capital gains. These are profits on the sale of assets such as stocks and bonds.

He then set off on the zigzag path by maintaining his silence when a group of protesting Republican senators said they had persuaded him to change his mind.

Asked Wednesday on a campaign stop to clear up his position on the tax issue, Bush shot back, "Let Congress clear it up" - a comment cited by many analysts as an abdication of leadership.

"One might have expected more from a man who has so successfully orchestrated a collective global response to Iraq's aggression in the Persian Gulf," the New York Times said in an editorial Friday.

David Broder, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, said Friday the budget mess had exposed Bush as lacking real convictions.

Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of Bush's closest friends in Congress, sounded dismayed.

"I'm sorry the president is starting to look that bad," he said. "This is a time the American people want some leadership."

Rostenkowski unveiled part of a Democratic tax alternative that would raise taxes on the wealthy to 33 percent and add a 10 percent surtax on annual incomes of more than $1 million.

The plan also would increase the gasoline tax by 3 cents per gallon, 8 cents less than the full Ways and Means proposal. The federal tax on gasoline now is 9 cents per gallon.