Congressional conferees reached agreement yesterday on major portions of a $1.85 billion child-care bill amid the first signs the White House may be willing to compromise on the legislation.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a principal sponsor of the child-care legislation, said conferees for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee resolved all differences on their portion of the bill except how the money would be allocated to various programs.

Details of yesterday's agreement were sketchy, but Dodd said the Senate agreed to a House proposal to expand the Head Start program and to create new school-based programs to take care of "latch-key" children before and after school hours. Local communities would decide what services they want.

Dodd said the House conferees agreed to a Senate proposal that would allow annual appropriations to finance a variety of new child-care programs.

In a bow to the White House, the conferees agreed to drop proposals for the creation of various child-care advisory councils. The Bush administration had objected to the councils, claiming they would create a new child-care bureaucracy.

Although the agreement is a major step forward in often-bitter haggling over the legislation for the last two years, conferees for the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee have yet to set a date to meet to discuss major tax issues in the bill.

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu yesterday sent a letter to Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) indicating for the first time that the Bush administration might be willing to go along with some form of legislation along the lines of the Democratic child-care proposal provided spending is limited to $15 billion over the next five years. Democratic sources among the conferees said they considered the letter to be a significant move by the White House.

In the letter, Sununu repeated many of President Bush's objections to the Democratic legislation but signaled an apparent willingness in a number of areas to shape compromises. Dodd said the conferees dealt with many of the objections raised by Sununu, but it was unclear whether they had gone far enough to satisfy the White House.

The White House has threatened repeatedly to veto any child-care bill it did not like. This was the first time it has indicated a willingness to compromise.

The Senate version of the child-care bill calls for spending $17.5 billion over five years with $8.5 billion in mandatory spending and the rest to be authorized annually. The House version would spend $27 billion over five years with $21.5 billion in mandatory tax or entitlement spending.

The biggest spending is in the form of an earned income tax credit, which would either give tax credits or make actual payments to the poorest families with small children. This is the most controversial area of the legislation and must be worked out by the two finance committees.

By not dealing with the question of how the money was to be allocated among the various child-care programs, the labor committees assured themselves a role in the final shaping of the bill once the finance committees reach their own agreement.