The Senate defeated attempts yesterday to prohibit the District of Columbia from using its own funds to pay for abortions for poor women, leaving the emotional issue to be negotiated in a joint House-Senate conference.

By a 54-to-41 vote, the Senate rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) to prohibit any federal or local funds approved in the District's fiscal 1986 appropriations bill from being used for an abortion, except when the life of the mother is threatened.

Earlier, the Senate defeated by a vote of 60 to 35 an amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would have had the effect of adding even stricter House-passed language prohibiting use of all funds in the bill for abortions with no exceptions.

The Senate then approved the District's fiscal 1986 budget bill, which had been delayed for weeks by the threat of an extended debate on abortion. The vote was 80 to 14.

The House and Senate conference will be led by two opponents of the House antiabortion provision, Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), making it likely the conference will follow the Senate and take the antiabortion language out of the final version of the bill.

"These are the first votes that have been won on abortion in a long time," said Specter, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, after the bill's passage. "It is a tribute to the Senate's recognition of home rule."

District officials had expressed grave concern over the House language, saying it not only would have an adverse impact on poor women seeking abortions but also would be an unwarranted intrusion into purely local decision-making. Officials and lobbyists for the city government had tried to get members of the House and Senate to focus on the home rule aspects of the debate on the city's money rather than on the more controversial issue of abortion.

D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who went to Capitol Hill to watch the debate, said he was "very happy" with the vote. If Congress added the antiabortion language, he said, "it would have said that poor people in the city couldn't have afforded to have the same choice other people have."

In the past, District appropriations bills have included language prohibiting federal funds to the city from being used for abortion, except when the mother's life is at stake, or in cases of rape or incest. The Senate bill retains that language. Congress for years has added riders to various appropriations bills barring federal funding of abortions except when the mother's life is endangered.

Specter said later that if the antiabortion forces had won yesterday, the bill would have been pulled off the Senate floor rather than passed with the new restriction. "There were grave doubts we could get this bill passed because of the abortion amendment," he said.

The debate yesterday afternoon concentrated on the appropriateness of telling the District how to spend its own funds, raised with local taxes.

Opponents of the antiabortion language had said that passage of the amendment would set an unfortunate precedent for the federal government to dictate spending to local governments. In addition to the District, 15 states use their own funds to pay for abortions.

Humphrey declared that Congress is entitled to make this type of restriction and pointed to a number of other prohibitions and mandates that Congress has put in the city's money bill in years past, such as a longtime legislated ban on metered taxicabs in the District.

The Senate also adopted by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) that would freeze the level of consultant contracts in the District at fiscal 1985 levels. Mattingly has expressed concerns about abuses of consultant contracts, particularly in light of media reports about abuses in that area.

But Specter said, "I don't think Sen. Mattingly's amendment is going to go very far in conference, and he understands that." The House approved a requirement that all city contracts be competitively bid, and the final language on any new restriction will be decided in conference.

The Senate parliamentarian ruled out of order, on an objection by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), an amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to make the District put up four large signs near the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW to designate clearly the location of "Sakharov Plaza." Congress last year specified that the land on which the Soviet Embassy sits would be named for Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), whose Denver constituency is competing with Washington in efforts to win a major league baseball franchise, succeeded in adding an amendment expressing congressional neutrality on the subject. The House had included a statement of support for the District's efforts to bring a team back to the nation's capital.

The Senate version of the $2.7 billion bill includes $30 million added by Specter in subcommittee to fund a start to the design and construction of a prison in the District to deal with severe overcrowding at the city's existing facilities.