A key congressional subcommittee yesterday said it would withhold the District's entire $336.6 million federal payment for the 1983 fiscal year unless the city hires 185 police officers by Oct. 1.

The action was the latest development in a two-year battle by members of the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee to force Mayor Marion Barry to beef up the size of the police force because of what some members of the panel see as an increasing threat from crime.

D.C. Budget Director Gladys W. Mack, in an effort to stave off the action, told the subcommittee that any effort to withhold the entire federal payment would severely hamper the city's ability to pay its bills. But later in the day, Mack said the city would be able to comply with the directive to hire the additional officers.

The action came at a time when Barry, in the midst of a reelection campaign, has been touting his good relations with Capitol Hill and pointing specifically to the fact that this year's federal payment authorization is the largest in history. Barry's press aide said the mayor would have no comment on the subcommittee's actions.

Dealing the city another financial blow, the subcommittee increased from $2.8 million to $20 million the amount the city must set aside during the 1983 fiscal year to reduce its long-term deficit of more than $300 million, accumulated over nearly a decade. The fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to next Sept. 30.

To set aside this amount, the subcommittee reduced or eliminated monies the city had earmarked for special day care and employment programs, low-income housing maintenance, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, arts programs and drivers' education for D.C. public school students.

Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, said the panel is "absolutely serious" about withholding the payment. He said the directive was necessary because the subcommittee had lost faith in the city's repeated assurances that the officers would be hired.

In November of 1980, at the behest of members of the subcommittee, Congress directed the city to increase the size of the police force to 3,880 and earmarked funds to hire the officers. City officials agreed to do so, but the size of the force currently is only 3,695 officers.

The delay has led to several heated subcommittee sessions over the past two years in which city officials, most often budget director Mack, were grilled on why the increase had not taken place. Particularly adamant on the subject of more police officers was Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.), a longtime member of the subcommittee who repeatedly accused the city of stalling.

Natcher and Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.) complained to Mack at yesterday's hearing about the amount of street crime in the nation's capital.

Lehman said that constituents from his home district north of Miami who had visited Washington recently had complained about flagrant prostitution and other criminal activities on city streets.

Beyond the issue of street crime, members of the subcommittee have grumbled privately that the city's slowness in adding the police officers made it appear that a congressional directive was being flouted.

"I would have liked not to have put this language into the bill, but looking at the past 21-month history on this issue, there was no alternative," Dixon said yesterday, in explaining the subcommittee's harsh action.

Dixon noted that the city had hired 177 officers last November, but then lost others through retirement, resignation and death, leaving a net increase of only 39 uniformed officers since the congressional directive was issued.

"I'm not saying the city hasn't made an effort to hire more officers . . . . The effort just hasn't been good enough," Dixon said.

City officials said after the subcommittee's action that they expect the city to be able to comply with the directive. City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers said that 32 new police officers will enter training Monday and 60 more will begin training on Sept. 6.

He said that by the Oct. 1 deadline, the remaining 93 new officers either will have received letters of commitment from the city offering them police jobs or will be in training.

A holdup of the federal payment, which Congress gives to the city each year in lieu of taxes and other revenues lost because of the District's status as the seat of the national government, could play havoc with the city's often precarious finances.

The city counts on receiving that money, which amounts to nearly one-sixth its total budget, in a lump sum at the beginning of the fiscal year to pay its bills.

Mack said that the delay in filling the police department slots was due to problems in finding an entrance examination that did not contain racial bias. The city determined last year that an examination it had administered was biased against women and minorities, but this year began using a test it says is free of bias.

In increasing the debt retirement fund, the subcommittee cut $1 million from the budget of the city's personnel office, $700,000 from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and $2 million from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which would have been spent for the heating and maintenance of low-rent housing projects.

The committee also cut $500,000 from the D.C. Commission on the Arts, $664,000 from the Department of Employment Services for programs to benefit youth out of school and adults with dependents, and $2 million from the Department of Human Services, which would have paid for day care programs for infants and handicapped youngsters, a day care crisis center and increases in Medicaid payments.

About $11 million that the city had wanted to earmark for the delivery of water and sewer services will be transferred to the debt retirement fund, Mack said. The subcommittee also directed the city to earmark an additional $3.6 million for St. Elizabeths Hospital, bringing the city's total contribution to the mental institution to $26.5 million.