What promises to be a heated and probably lengthy congressional debate over possible deregulation of the trucking industry began in earnest yesterday with the opening of Senate Commerce Committee hearins.

The key players were all present with ne major exception: No one was there to represent the Carter administration. The White House has place trucking deregulation - something the president had in the past endorsed - on the back burner until the conclusion of the current Teamsters' negotiations for a new nationwide contract.

The White House wants to see of the settlement terms are within its anti-inflation guidelines before committing itself to a deregulation position.

The lead-off witness was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leading advocate of trucking deregulation, who argued that current regulation results in higher prices for consumers than would occur in a more competitive marketplace. Congressional action to remove the federal antitrust exemption that now permits truckers to agree among themselves on the rates they will charge is one of the "very few actions" the Congress can take to affect directly the fight against inflation, Kennedy said.

"Very few items reach the dinner table of the average American family that didn't travel by truck," he said.

Complimenting Committee Chairman Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.) for his work on airline deregulation, Kennedy said he was hopeful thath the "same kind of attention, concern and thoughfulness can be targeted" to the motor carrier debate. "I think the lessons in airline deregulation are applicable," he said.

A cosponsor with Cannon of the airline deregulation measure. Kennedy had been engaged until last week in a two-month jurisdictional squabble with Cannon over the placement of a Kennedy measure to make rate agreements among trucking companies illegal and to give them some pricing flexibility.

Althought the measure has been sent to Commerce in Exchange for Cannon's promise to consider the bill "diligently and thoroughly . . . in this session," the hearings yesterday were general oversight hearings. Nevertheless, a good deal of attention was spent on the Kennedy measure.

Bennett C. Whitlock Jr., chief spokesman for the Trucking industry as president of the American Trucking Associations, told the committee that the industry believes the consumer has benefited by rate regulation, not suffered. "Collective rate-making is the guts of the motor carrier regulatory system," he said. "is is the glue that holds the system together."

Under regulation, the trucking industry provides dependable freight service on an equitable basis to all at reasonable rates, he argued. If there is any problem, it is not with the law but with the way it is carried out by the Interstate Commerce Commission Whitlock contende.

The ICC under Chairman A. Daniel O'Neal has "embraced a policy of uneven and ill-considered administrative deregulation" causing the industry to operate under "an intolerable burden of uncertainty," he said. "From one week to the next, we do not know what the rules will be."

In his testimony, O'Neal defended the ICC's recent actions to reduce some regulation of the motor carrier industry but also defended the basic regulatory scheme. It assures all parts of the country trucking services, prevents large shippers and large carriers from exercising their market power to compel preferential treatment, and reduces concentration by protecting small carriers, he said.

"Those are significant virtues, and they can be realized only if the government plays a role in allocating economic resources through the regulatory process," O'Neal contended.

In response to a question from sen. Cannon, O'Neal said the commission had not yet decided whether the antitrust immunity for rate agreements should be maintained in whole or in part, but a decision may be reached by the end of the year.

Asked when the ICC would forward its recommendations for legislation changes, O'Neal said they planned to look at what the administration proposed first. "We also heard the administration would be coming forward with a bill; we heard that some time ago," Cannon said amid laughter.

"I would hope you would not defer to the administration," Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.) said "The independent agencies that Congress oversees are seeming to become less and less independent."