Six key members of a House committee that recently approved legislation to revamp the nation's communications laws have asked Speaker Thomas O'Neill (D-Mass.) to reject a request by the chairman of the Judiciary Committee for referral of the bill before it reaches the House floor.

In a letter to O'Neill, the members -- including Commerce Committee Chairman Harley Staggers (D-W.Va), Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.), chairman of the communications subcommittee and the architect of the legislation, and Rep. James Broyhill (N.C.), Commerce ranking Republican member -- asked that O'Neill "consider an alternative to referral."

Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) repeatedly has expressed concern that the legislation -- which sets up a significant restructuring of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., the nation's largest company -- could prevent a court from ordering divestiture in the Justice Department's landmark antitrust suit against AT&T. The six-year-old case is expected to go to trial later this year.

For Van Deerlin, in particular, the O'Neill letter signifies a change in position. On July 3, in a letter to Rodion, Van Deerlin said his staff would continue to work with Rodino's staff on working out their differences and said he does "not seek to intrude on the jurisdiction of" Rodino's committee.

"if, after reviewing the bill reported by the Commerce Committee later this month, you still have unresolved questions, I will support a formal referral of the legislation to the Judicial Committee so that you may consider additional changes," Van Deerlin wrote six weeks ago.

In the letter to O'Neill, dated Aug. 7, Van Deerlin and the other five members, said referral "may prevent full House consideration" of the bill, which easily passed the committee last month.

The six House members said they "will cooperate fully" with Rodino to permit the consideration of any amendments to the bill on the House floor.