A bill to raise the beer-drinking age from 19 to 21 breezed through a House committee today with legislators saying it has its best chance ever to pass the entire General Assembly -- in part because millions of dollars in federal highway funds depend on it.

The bill has repeatedly passed the House with flying colors but has died in the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, despite what legislators describe as substantial support for the measure in the Senate as a whole.

On Friday, the Senate committee approved a drinking-age bill, and though one senator called that bill more of a "charade" than a legislative proposal, supporters of a higher age limit claim they can work it into shape to match the House measure recommended today.

Behind the new hopes for raising the drinking age is what Del. Frank D. Hargrove (R-Hanover) calls the "ax" -- a federal law passed in July 1984 that threatens states with the loss of up to 10 percent of federal highway funds unless they adopt the 21 age limit by 1986.

Legislators like Hargrove decry the federal arm-twisting as "absolutely awful" but still, says Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax), no one wants to be responsible for costing Virginia an estimated $12 million in 1987 and $28 million in 1988.

The House committee today chose Hargrove's proposal, which would allow those who were 20 by this October to continue drinking beer, over a "cold turkey" measure that would have required all beer-drinkers to be 21 by October.

Del. James H. Dillard (R-Fairfax), who sponsored the cold turkey measure, argued that the Virginia Retail Merchants Association and college officials supported his bill because it was easier to administer. He said one look at a driver's license would tell a bartender whether or not to serve someone because license photos of those under 21, unlike those over 21, are taken taken in profile.

But Del. Ralph Axselle (D-Richmond) and others argued that Dillard's bill would force the state to "tell people who had been drinking for two years that they couldn't drink anymore."