In the steam room of the House gym yesterday, former representative Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.), now a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin Corp., made his pitch to Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.): The F-22 should be preserved because it is the nation's most advanced stealth fighter.

"We sat on the sauna naked together and talked about the F-22," said Moran, who spent last night negotiating the annual defense spending bill with his Senate counterparts. "That's the advantage former members have."

The Air Force also has been sweating the outcome this week as its allies, including defense contractors and some congressional leaders, have waged a down-to-the-wire effort to restore $1.8 billion in funding for the first six production models of the F-22. Moran and rest of the House negotiators so far have held firm behind Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, which stunned the Pentagon this summer by cutting the money.

The impasse shows that despite all the influence of Lockheed Martin and the Air Force, the F-22 remains dependent on the last-minute bartering that often governs the appropriations process. It also demonstrates that even in the realm of defense spending--where there is bipartisan support for higher funding--lawmakers are being forced to prioritize.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), another of the House negotiators, said Congress had no choice but to divert funds to maintain current equipment rather than starting production on a costly new venture.

"What we're doing is taking the F-22 money and funding the assets to keep our kids alive," said Cunningham, a former fighter pilot in Vietnam. "It's saying we have priorities for defense and the president wants to keep cutting defense money, specifically in the area of air defense. We feel it's Congress's position to step in and take the initiative to fight for our national security."

Like Moran, Cunningham has received plenty of attention from defense contractors. Lockheed Martin CEO Vance Coffman visited both of them last week, but Cunningham told Coffman he would be better off lobbying "the person who created this problem in the first place, who is Bill Clinton."

Clinton administration officials have been in close contact with lawmakers and their aides recently: Air Force Gen. Michael Ryan talks regularly with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who supports providing money for the six fighters, and he spoke a week and a half ago with Stevens's House counterpart, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.).

House leaders, anxious to deliver a defense bill to the president, also have urged their own members to come to an agreement. In a meeting last Thursday with Young, Lewis, and the three top Republicans, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told Lewis to "get the conference report done," according to several participants.

As Texans whose state helps produce the F-22, both House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay were particularly supportive of reinstating the program's funding. "The leadership requested of the appropriators that they put that in the bill," Armey said in an interview yesterday.

Young initially agreed with the leadership, and Lewis decided to offer the Senate $600 million to fund two F-22 fighters. But the Senate rejected the proposal.

Negotiators broke off discussions last night without reaching an agreement, though House members said they were encouraged by a counteroffer from Stevens. Sources said the Senate proposed devoting $1.1 billion to research and development for the plane and $100 million for testing. The measure would also provide $270 million for advanced procurement, but that funding would not be released until testing was complete.

"We are making significant progress," said Lewis, who added that while he was not willing to go as far as Stevens's plan, the proposal would amount to the pause that he has been seeking in procurement of the F-22.

"We've got to know this is going to work before we buy it," he said.

The talks between the House and Senate have been acrimonious. At one point on Monday, sources said, Stevens threatened to pull the bill out of conference and bring it back up on the Senate floor, an almost unprecedented move.

Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.