President Bush, in an effort to head off growing congressional momentum for major defense cuts next fiscal year, yesterday lobbied Hill leaders to preserve strategic weapons programs in the face of continued Soviet strategic modernization and to limit military personnel cuts.

Bush, in his first major White House meeting with congressional leaders since legislative committees began drafting defense authorization budgets for the 1991 fiscal year, outlined the administration's defense priorities for upcoming debates.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney warned that he would urge Bush to veto any defense funding bill that does not adequately finance manpower and strategic programs, or give the Pentagon flexibility to make force reductions without excessive legislative mandates, according to administration officials.

The meeting with 14 congressional leaders came as the House Armed Services Committee prepares to draw up its defense authorization bill next week; Senate floor debate on its measure is scheduled to begin in early August.

Bush has been criticized by some Republican members for failing to give them clear guidance on the programs he most wants to save in the budget cutting. While refusing to set specific spending numbers, Bush gave lawmakers a broad outline of his priorities. Bush and Cheney characterized the Senate Armed Services Committee defense authorization bill, which sliced $18 billion from Bush's $306 billion request as "reasonable," but expressed anxiety over the $24 billion in cuts House leaders have said they will impose.

The president, echoing Cheney's frequent warnings, said, "We must remember there have been few changes in Soviet strategic forces. On the contrary, they are continuing to modernize their entire force and will enter the START {strategic arms reduction treaty} negotiations fully modernized."

Bush urged the leaders to support his strategic modernization program which includes the B-2 "stealth" bomber, MX rail-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, Trident submarine and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Bush also stressed the need for gradual, not abrupt, troop reductions next year.

The Senate Armed Services panel, which finished drafting its version of the 1991 fiscal year defense bill last week, recommended cutting production funds for the rail-mobile missile and reduced the administration's $4.6 billion SDI request by $1 billion. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) has said he will propose cutting all production money for the B-2 bomber.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.