Intensive lobbying by the right people yesterday morning saved -- at least temporarily -- the government's fledgling executive bonus program from death by budgetary strangulation.

After some VIP calls and letters, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to let the government give a limited number of bonuses, worth up to $10,000, to the best career bureaucrats in the Senior Executive Service.

Although the $10,000 limit is a "cap," it represents a 100 percent improvement over the suggestion of a subcommittee that wanted to ban all SES bonuses this year. The SES is the elite corps of career and political executives created by President Carter's civil service reform act.

When Congress approved the SES, the idea was to give bonuses and special pay rates to executives who traded in much of the tenure and job security of the civil service. But Congress then whittled back promised pay raises for the executives, who are mostly at the top civil service range of $50,000. Then the powerful purse-strings appropriation committee prepared to kill off all bonuses this year.

Congress originally approved payment of agency bonuses worth up to 20 percent of salary, plus two categories of presidential-level career bonuses of up to $20,000 for a few outstanding executives.

The $20,000 bonuses promised disappeared when Congress said that no career civil servant could earn more than a member of the Senate or House (just over $60,000 a year) in total compensation.

Administration brass were prepared to live with "watered-down" $10,000 bonuses. But the alarm bells sounded this week when it was learned the Appropriations Committee might eliminate all bonuses.

At that point Reps. James M. Hanley (D-N.Y.), Edward Derwinski (R-Ill.) and Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) got into the act. They used the old-boy, "dear colleague" approach to salvage the bonus concept. Hanley chairs the Post Office-Civil Service Committee. Udall and Derwinski are ranking members, and used their influence with Democrats and Republicans to rally probonus sentiment. Rep. Bill Ford (D-Mich.), heir-apparent to the committee chair when Hanley retires, called in some prolabor IOUs too. And President Jimmy Carter got on the Capitol Hill hotline, sources say, to ask that his SES be given a chance to prove itself.

Carter also dispatched budget director James McIntyre Jr., and Alan K. Campbell of the Office of Personnel Management, to drum up save-the-bonus sentiment. McIntyre is close to Carter, and Campbell is Carter's expert on the bureaucracy. They argued that eliminating bonuses would damage, maybe wreck the SES. And they said it would amount to a breach of contract with the thousands of career civil servants who volunteered for the high-risk, high-reward service.

If the "limited" $10,000 bonuses are upheld by the House and the Senate, SES will be able to deliver one of the few financial incentives Congress and the White House promised when they created it. If the bonuses are lost -- and the dollar amounts are, relatively speaking, peanuts -- a major chunk of the much-touted civil service reform act will go down the tubes.