A Northern Virginia congressman has dropped a bid to force the District to house 1,200 of its inmates within the city, after getting assurances from federal officials that the Lorton prison complex in southern Fairfax County will close by 2002--even if a new D.C. prison is not built.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), the ranking minority member on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, had angered city officials recently by indicating that he would seek an amendment to the District's fiscal 2000 budget to force the city to permanently house some of its own prisoners.

D.C. leaders had thought that the prison debate was dead after the city's Zoning Commission last month rejected a plan by Corrections Corp. of America to build a 1,200-bed complex in far Southwest Washington.

"He has got a real fight on his hands," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Thursday of Moran's effort to revive the debate. "It is an outrageously hostile anti-home rule amendment."

But even before Moran formally introduced the legislation, he decided yesterday to back off. Moran said he was concerned that his proposal would be seen as a move to assist CCA, a private firm seeking a contract with the federal government to handle some of the D.C. inmates to be moved from Lorton. The city's troubled prison in Fairfax is under federal mandate to close.

"I am not trying to help any one corporation," Moran said.

Moran said Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer told him in a meeting yesterday that most of Lorton's minimum-security adult males, as well as youth and female inmates, will be housed at federal prisons within 300 miles of the District, addressing in part Moran's concern that those inmates would be sent too far away from their families. His proposed amendment would have forced the city to house at least half of that population, or about 1,200 prisoners.

Moran said that even if Congress does not require it, he believes the District still should allow a prison within the city in return for the U.S. government's 1997 commitment to shut down the 90-year-old Lorton complex and foot the city's corrections bill, an offer worth about $185 million next year.

John Ray, a former D.C. Council member now representing CCA, said the firm still is pursuing the Southwest prison plan and intends to appeal the Zoning Commission decision in court. But Norton and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said this week that as far as they are concerned, no prison will be built in the city any time soon.

"Prisons . . . are usually sited on vacant land far away from commercial and residential properties," Williams said. "The District of Columbia . . . is not large enough to accommodate a prison. Few cities are."

That leaves open the question of where the District's 8,000 inmates will go.

Lorton, which once held about 10,000 inmates, was down to 3,670 prisoners yesterday, largely because of temporary contracts the District has arranged with Virginia and a CCA prison in Ohio.

The 256-inmate minimum-security complex at Lorton is set to close by September, and the 824-inmate youth facility is to shut down by March. The 1,967-inmate central facility and 623-inmate maximum-security facility gradually will see their populations reduced, with final closure set for December 2001.

Hawk Sawyer told Moran yesterday that the Lorton shutdown ultimately may take until June 2002, but will be complete even if the CCA plan in the District is not revived, Moran said.

Inmates once housed at Lorton gradually will be moved to Federal Bureau of Prisons complexes. Congress has authorized the agency to build seven new complexes to absorb the inmates, but several of the prisons will not be completed by the end of 2001.

A U.S. prisons spokesman said the bureau is confident it will find temporary housing for such inmates.