House leaders escalated their rhetoric yesterday while the White House scrambled for votes in expectation of a House vote today on President Carter's promised veto of a $10 billion public works bill containing controversial water projects.

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who like Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D.W.Va.) has split with Carter on the issue, accused the president of acting like an "ostrich" in ignoring America's future water needs, and indicated the White House was holding off on the veto because it did not have the necessary votes to sustain it.

But by late yesterday, White House lobbyists were claiming they had the votes and sources said Carter probably would veto the bill this morning. House leaders said if he did, they would veto on it by noon. The Senate is considered more likely to override the veto, leaving Carter with the House as his principal hope.

O'Neill, who is joined in his opposition by House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex) and Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz), said Carter was using yesterday to send his "heavy hitters" up to Capitol Hill to round up votes.

The speaker strongly criticized Carter, saying "The president is putting his head in the sand like an ostrich and not thinking about the future of America." He said water would be one of the country's greatest problems in the next 25 years and this bill was an instrument in the future.

The bill funds 26 new water projects, the president wanted, but Congress added 27 new starts of its own and restored funding for six water projects halted last year in a compromise between Congress and the administration.

Carter claims the bill is $1.8 billion over his budget request. Wright and members of the Appropriations Committee say it is $879 million below the President's request for this year. The White House says the House members arrived at that figure by making only a down payment in funding for the 27 new water projects and by overestimating receipts.

Carter has called the projects "pork barrel" and the bill inflationary. Congressional leaders say the projects are justifiable and have told Carter he is jeopardizing the passage of his energy bill by causing bitterness with his veto of projects members feel are vital to their districts.

"I think there will be some bitterness," O'Neill said yesterday. "I think there will be rancor and I don't like to see it brewing. I am concerned that it will get mixed up with energy."

Both sides brought muscle into play as they scrambled for votes. A two-thirds-veto of those present is necessary to override, which means Carter must get about 140 votes to be sustained.

Carter himself made phone calls to House members yesterday, and Cabinet members were handed lists of members to call.

The administration also sent out a team consisting of Budget Director James McIntyre, Interior Secretary Cecli Andrus, Council or Economic Advisers Chairman Charles Schultze and Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander to make their case to the Press and in a briefing to House members.

Schultze said the 27 projects in the bill would cost $1.8 billion if they were fully funded, as the president's 26 projects are at a cost of $640 million. Instead. Congress appropriated only $103.6 million for its $27 projects, an amount Schultze and others contend is a mere down payment with greater inflationary pressures in the future.

Schulze said it was a "classic test" of whether the country would be able to reduce spending.

However, the group ran into a generally hostile reception when it reached Capitol Hill, where the briefing was attended mostly by members with water projects in their districts.

Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.) asked why Carter was vetoing "$2 billion in public works projects for our country while approving $3 billion public works projects for foreign countries" through foreign aid bills.

Rep. Carl Perkins (D-Ky.), who has the disputed Yatesville project, one of the six on last year's hit list that the committee revived, frequently interrupted the administration spokesman.

Perkins contended the project in his district was preventing floods and saving lives. He contended the ivestment of $40 million would return $200 million. "This is not inflationary," he said.

Others contended the projects returned 90 cents on the dollar, but Andrus said generally nowhere near that amount was repaid.