The chairman of the House panel considering proposals to modify the government's role in regulating the trucking industry said yesterday that he is ready to consider total deregulation.

Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.), chairman of the House surface transportation subcommittee, said in an interview that when the panel takes up the issue -- probably next month -- he may propose starting with a plan to end trucking regulation entirely.

"There doesn't seem to be a need for that much regulation," Howard said. "Maybe we ought to look through the other end of the telescope."

"I've never taken an ideological position on the whole thing. I've been open on this all the way. If it looks like I'm sliding around, it's been an easy slide," he added.

Howard -- once considered a roadblock to deregulation advocates' efforts -- already has introduced a limited bill that the Transportation Department has criticized sharply, claiming that it only would complicate the regulatory process and add to the nation's inflation rate.

But now that the Senate Commerce Committee has approved a deregulation proposal put together by Sens. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) and Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), Howard says he wants to see how the full Senate reacts to the proposal.

"We could either start with my bill, or we could start with a bill close to what the Senate might pass, or we could even start with nothing," Howard said. "If we wait for the Senate, that would leave us with less of a hassle in conference.

"Maybe we could see what the administration thinks is the absolute basic regulation that we need, write that up quick and start there," he added.

Few industry observers and deregulation advocates take a proposal to move directly to total deregulation very seriously, arguing that some sort of a transition period is necessary so that the industry and the shipping public can adjust to changes in the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

But Howard's change of direction only can add impetus to what has effectively become a deregulation steamroller. On the Senate side, while Commerce Committee aides are working feverishly to write a report by early next week, administration officials and other sources say congressional leaders are in the midst of tense negotiations to bring the Cannon-Packwood bill to the Senate floor, perhaps even before Congress recesses April 4.

Although Cannon has said he hopes the bill passes the Senate during April, sources see the possibility of ironing out a time agreement with key Senate leaders soon that would limit the votes by members and the number of amendments that can be added to the Cannon-Packwood measure.

Cannon, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, already has warned the ICC about moving ahead with deregulation initiatives without congressional mandate, and Howard has a similar view, if from a different perspective.

"People are always running to Sen. Cannon or to me when they have a problem with what the ICC is doing," Howard said, adding that the resulting confusion is one reason he says he is pledged to getting a bill to a Senate-House conference by June 1.

Administration officials say the ICC is under no legal or moral constraints to delay deregulation rulemakings past June 1.