The Senate yesterday worked its way through a $10.3 billion public works money bill that contains funds for nine of 18 water projects President Carter wants halted.

Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handled the measure, told his colleagues frequently during yesterday's session that halting money for half of Carter's "hit list" was designed to avoid a veto.

But during a day of occasionally sarcastic debate, Stennis found himself fighting off senators on both sides of the issue - those who wanted to restore projects the subcommittee cut and others who, with Carter's support, wanted to delete the remaining hit list projects.

By a 73-to-19 vote, Stennis defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Floyd K. Haskell (D-Colo.) to restore eight projects that had been deleted by the subcommittee.

Yesterday evening another amendment, this one by Sen. Thomas J. McIntyre (D-N.H.), to eliminate all the projects Carter wanted killed was defeated 52 to 34.

The President has threatened a veto of the bill if Congress fails to accept the bulk of his hit list recommendations. The veto prospect grew larger when the House, ignoring Carter, voted funds for 17 of 18 hit list projects in its version of the public works bill.

Stennis said yesterday that his subcommittee sought "a way to give proper consideration to the President's position." He added that by dropping nine of the 18 the President sought to kill the groundwork had been prepared for the President to meet us halfway."

Stennis also added that the subcommittee's decision to cut out all new water project construction" starts was "quite a concession to the President" and would allow Carter "a chance to make his own recommendations next year."

The letter from Carter introduced during yesterday's debate gave one indication that Stennis' nine project compromises might not be enough.

Carter wrote to McIntyre that he supported the amendment to delete funds for the entire list, and noted that "a number of the most expensive and least sound projects are recommended for funding in the bill reported to the full Senate."

McIntyre argued that "budgetary priorities" rather than the merits of any individual projects were at the bottom of his decision to introduce his amendment. "The issue before us today," he said, "is one simply of weighing the priorities of our federal budget."

Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), co-sponsor of McIntyre's amendment called it "a real man-bites-dog approach" when senators begin cutting water projects. "We can do it," he added, "because we have a President who recognizes this kind of waste."

Haskell, who led the unsuccessful fight to restore deleted projects, said three dropped by Stennis' subcommittee were in his own state. He then noted bitterly that six of the eight hit list water projects in the Senate bill were in states with senators on the subcommittee.

Haskell also pointed out that the President had restored the $1.6 billion Tennessee Tombigbee project in Stennis' state. Haskell described it as a "dandy ditch for barges," that would be an environmental disaster "subject to leash laws in 50 states."

"It's about time," Haskell said, "we concede that some projects failed through a process no more responsible or scientific than the flip of the coin . . . or the fortunes of committee assignment."

The Senate postponed consideration of $150 million for the controversial Clinch River breeder reactor, which also is in the public works money bill. Money for the reactor, which the President opposes, is expected to be taken up after the July 4 recess.