A high-stakes bidding war on Capitol Hill ended yesterday with Maryland failing to land a multimillion-dollar Defense Department contract for a software research center at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. The Pentagon announced that the center would be located at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The decision ended months of political maneuvering by the Maryland and Pennsylvania congressional delegations and others who believe the center is going to become unofficial national headquarters for the lucrative software industry.

Maryland representatives maintained that the proposed Software Engineering Institute should be at the University of Maryland because of its highly regarded computer sciences department and the fast-growing number of software firms in the region.

A spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, a Republican, said yesterday that Carnegie-Mellon is "a pioneer in the development of highly sophisticated software program languages and engineering." Pennsylvania had pushed for the project as a way to diversify its fast-eroding steel economy, which has left thousands unemployed in the Pittsburgh region.

Maryland officials had hoped the center would create about 25,000 jobs in this region. It also would have added prestige to an area that has been angling to become a center for high technology.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose 5th Congressional District includes the university. "It would have been tremendous for Prince George's County."

Maryland representatives and university officials said last week that a preliminary analysis by the Department of Defense had ranked Maryland's proposal first on technical merit. Yesterday, Maryland officials wondered aloud whether political considerations played a role in the Pentagon's choice of Carnegie-Mellon. That university also has a fine reputation for computer sciences and lobbied vigorously for the Pentagon project.

"I think we need to find out which proposal rated the highest," said Robert Smith, a vice president at the University of Maryland. "There ought to be some careful explanation why" Maryland was not chosen, he added.

"It's not like we lost to a cow college, so I can't say it was politics per se," Hoyer said. "But Carnegie-Mellon and Pennsylvania officials are a group with a lot of clout. To the extent that politics played a role, we could not compete."

Hoyer noted that that Pennsylvania's congressional delegation is top-heavy with Republicans, including Sen. John Heinz, who visited several top White House aides to make the pitch for his state.

In addition, Carnegie-Mellon hired lobbyists from eight of Pittsburgh's top corporations and enlisted the consulting firm headed by former defense secretary Melvin Laird.

Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation, which has only two Republicans, wrote and called the Pentagon over several months to press the state's case.

The Defense Department offered no special reason for the choice of Carnegie-Mellon, and spokesman Jack Powers said he could not discuss the factors considered.

Hoyer said he received a letter from Defense saying the institution chosen was "the best qualified."

About a dozen universities and congressional delegations were actively bidding for the project. The Defense Department received about 240 letters when the five-year project was announced this year.

The Pentagon conceived the institute to bring together researchers in the now-disparate field of software to explore ways to use computer programming in the operation of ships, planes and satellites.