But with intense international pressure on the lawmakers, there were high expectations that the agreement granting minority ethnic Albanians more rights would be allowed to move ahead.
The pending vote to approve the framework for later constitutional changes is just the first step by parliament and an important gesture to maintain momentum in efforts to end the six-month old insurgency by ethnic Albanian rebels demanding greater rights.
Approval will clear the way for NATO to resume collecting weapons voluntarily handed over by the rebels, and push parliament to the next phase of debating specific constitutional changes in the step-by-step process.
A rejection of the agreement would throw the whole peace deal into question. The rebels, known as the National Liberation Army, are unlikely to continue disarming if the Macedonian side does not adhere to its promises of constitutional changes.
Under the accord, forged with American and European mediators last month, ethnic Albanians would receive greater political and language rights. They comprise about a third of the nation's 2 million people.
Many of the deputies echo the cries of Macedonian street protesters: the perception that the accord rewards violence, as a trade-off for the end of fighting by ethnic Albanian rebels, yet fails to completely cripple the NLA.
"The Macedonian nation is bleeding. We have been humiliated. We have lost. We are victims of aggression," said Ilija Prangovski. "It is our right to defend ourselves and no one, not even NATO, the USA or EU, have the right to take this away from us. This parliament is the last bastion of our defense that someone is bent on destroying, regardless of the consequences."
Still, the top ranks of the leading VMRO party promised to back the accord with all its 47 votes in the 120-seat parliament, and told Western envoys that defectors could face party expulsion.
VMRO backing combined with that of the 24 ethnic Albanian legislators and the former communists is key to reach the two-thirds majority needed to move along the peace process.
The party leader, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, signed the pact but later called it too sweeping. He told parliament, however, to "look reality in the eye" and back the plan as a way to save the country's slumping economy.
Georgievski's support was tempered, leaving open the option of a future showdown over the rights reforms.
"It is only the beginning ... we are being forced to change the constitution under pressure and aggression," he said in an address late Monday.
But ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi warned: "If this peace deal is not passed ... it will multiply the problems."
NATO has already collected more than a third of the 3,300 rebel weapons o be surrendered by late September. The next phase calls for another third or about 1,100 weapons to be gathered. The collection of the last remaining arms begins once parliament has passed the 36 amendments to change the constitution.
"The whole world is waiting for us to take this initial subtle decision," said Mitko Ilevski. "We are asked to turn over a new page in history. Time will be our test."
By Elena Becatoros
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